SOLICITATION - ESTABLISHMENT OF REFERRAL SERVICE BY A BAR GROUP-LOCAL ADVERTISING OF SUCH REFERRAL SERVICE - It is improper for a group of attorneys to organize a bar association and establish a referral service for its members only, particularly when an existing referral plan is already operating in the area; and such group may not run a series of spot announcements over local radio stations, which announcements state the name of the organization and a minimum consultation fee lower than the existing minimum consultation fee set by the already operating referral service; and neither may such announcements properly invite the radio audience to contact the radio station for further information.
Is it proper for a group of attorneys to organize a bar association and:
1. Organize a referral service composed of the members of such bar association, even though there is already an existing referral plan operating in the territory;
2. Run a series of spot announcements over a local radio station generally as follows: "So that no one who has a legal problem need go without the privilege of consulting a lawyer, the (name of organization) has established a fee of only three dollars for consultations. If you desire more information, contact this station";
3. Advertise a minimum consultation fee lower than the existing consultation fee of an already organized bar association?
Such action would be improper and a violation of Texas Canon No.24.
Historically, bar associations have been organized on a volunteer basis (for example, the American Bar Association), and this is still wholly true in Texas except for the State Bar of Texas, in which membership is required by law. The propriety or lack of propriety of organizing a bar association is not based upon approval or disapproval of the association on the part of the State Bar of Texas or any other group of lawyers. Ethically, then, any group of lawyers is free to organize any bar association, and the organization of a bar association cannot be unethical per se.
It is possible, however, that the organization may be for an improper purpose, or that the organization may be operated in an improper manner; and, to the extent that such is done, the members of the association may be acting unethically, though this is because their acts are in violation of some canon or law and not because they organized a bar association.
Therefore, if the entire purpose of organizing a local group is to operate the referral plan above referred to, in the manner stated, then such a bar group has been organized for an improper purpose. And, in addition, if such bar group operates the proposed referral plan in the manner set out, it will be operating in an improper manner for the following reasons:
1. Participation in such a referral plan-as distinguished from membership in the particular bar association-should be open to all members of the bar in that area who are in good standing with the State Bar of Texas.
2. The instant advertising does not clearly show its purpose to be only to give beneficial information to the public. The advertising contains no educational type of information concerning the desirability of securing legal services nor concerning the fact that most lawyers will consult with individuals for reasonable fees.
3. The advertising program stresses that "the members" of the particular bar association rather than most lawyers-have established the fee stated, thereby giving the impression that such referral service was actuated by selfish desire to increase professional employment of a particular group of lawyers.
4. The instant advertising fails to stress that the proposed referral plan is a method which should be used only by those who have no better method of contacting an attorney.
5. The advertising is worded so as to indicate it is for the benefit of a particular group of lawyers, namely, members of this particular bar association.
6. The advertisements in question imply that the participating lawyers are superior to-or are rendering a service superior to-that rendered by others and non-participating lawyers, in that it is implied that other lawyers charge a fee larger than reasonable. In order that an advertisement on behalf of a Lawyers Reference Plan be educational rather than competitive, it is better to stress that most lawyers will consult with a client for a reasonable fee stated in advance and that the purpose of the Lawyers Reference Service is to aid one to find the lawyer who will so give advice for a reasonable fee. If the advertisement mentions a specific fee, it should be a sum generally considered by the lawyers in the community to be reasonable. An advertisement which states a fee of one reference service lower than that publicly stated by another local reference service is obviously a competitive advertisement.
7. By stressing a fee of $3.00, which is below the fees generally prevailing in the state (and, as inquiry indicates, in that particular area) and below the fee which most lawyers in the state can economically justify, the advertisement is competitive in nature with the other lawyers practicing in the area (9-0).