OPINION 371
March 1975

REFERRAL SERVICESIt is improper for a lawyer to assist or participate in a lawyer referral service unless the referral service is operated, sponsored or approved by a bar association representative of the general bar of the geographical area in which the association exists.

Code of Professional Responsibility. DR 2-103(C), (D)(3)

Question

May a lawyer ethically participate in a lawyer referral service operated, sponsored or approved by an "association" formed by a relatively small group of lawyers, limited geographically so as to include only a fraction of the general bar of the geographical area in which the association exists?

Opinion

Former Opinion No. 371 dated April, 1974, which has never been published by this Committee, is hereby withdrawn and this opinion is substituted therefor.

The inquiry giving rise to this opinion concerned a small group of lawyers located within a relatively small geographical section of a city in this state who joined together in an "association" and then inquired as to whether they could properly form a "lawyer referral service" operated, sponsored or approved by their group. It is the opinion of this Committee that participation by lawyers in such a referral service would be unethical.

DR 2-103(C) provides: "A lawyer may not request a person or organization to recommend employment, as a private practitioner, of himself, his partner, or associate, except that he may request referrals from a lawyer referral service operated, sponsored or approved by a bar association representative of the general bar of the geographical area in which the association exists and may pay its fees incident thereto." (Emphasis ours)

DR 2-103(D), in its relevant portions, provides: "A lawyer shall not knowingly assist a person or organization that recommends, furnishes or pays for legal services to promote the use of his services or those of his partners or associates. However, he may cooperate in a dignified manner with the legal service activities of . . .

(3) A lawyer referral service operated, sponsored, or approved by a bar association representative of the general bar of the geographical area in which the association exists."

The question presented obviously requires some interpretation of the phrase "a bar association representative of the general bar of the geographical area in which the association exists." While the Committee does not deem it proper to lay down any hard and fast rule as to the geographical boundaries of a bar association which may properly operate, sponsor or approve a lawyer referral service sanctioned by DR 2-103(C) or (D), or as to its number of members or percentage of the general bar required to make such an association representative of such general bar, general guidelines based upon the legitimate purposes for sanctioning of lawyer referral services are available, and do provide an answer to the particular inquiry here made. Such referral services are designed to benefit the public, and should not operate for the benefit of any particular group of attorneys. ABA Opinion 291. See also ABA Opinions 179, 191, 205 and 227. To allow various competing groups of attorneys within the same general geographical area to advertise and solicit business through the guise of lawyer referral services operated, sponsored or approved by "associations" formed by such groups would violate both the spirit and the letter of DR 2-103. Such would convey to the public an implication that the principal purpose of such referral services was to secure professional employment for the group being advertised, rather than to benefit the public by providing access to legal services.

The Committee is mindful of the existence of local bar associations, organized and operated for legitimate professional purposes, with geographical representation sometimes based upon city, county or metropolitan lines. The mere possibility of overlap in membership because of such distinction of geographical representation does not necessarily exclude any such bar association as one representative of the general bar of the geographical area in which it exists. However, "the organized bar" referred to by ABA Opinion 227 and a "bar association representative of the general bar of the geographical area in which the association exists" referred to in DR 2-103 clearly do not contemplate small, limited groups of lawyers such as the one referred to in the inquiry under discussion.

The lawyer referral plan sanctioned by DR 2-103 should be broadly representative of the general bar in the community. It must be open to lawyers generally, and not just to attorneys practicing a certain specialty. It must attempt to provide service for all persons who have legal questions or problems in all fields of the law.

In conclusion, we hold that the lawyer referral service contemplated by the relatively small group of lawyers making the inquiry is not one within the guidelines sanctioned by DR 2-103, which should have the following characteristics:

(1) It must be operated, sponsored or approved by a general bar association, representative of all fields of practice in a general geographical area; and

(2) It must attempt to provide a legal service of every kind and character needed by the public in the general geographical area.

 

Such service must not be limited, either by membership of participating attorneys or by name, to trial practice, probate practice, or some specialized field, nor by narrow geographical limitations making it unrepresentative of the general bar of the community. It must purport to provide a general legal service and must be available to attorneys in every field of law. It must be motivated by a desire to benefit the lay public and operated in such a way as to avoid the impression that it is actuated by selfish desire to increase professional employment for any particular group of lawyers. (18-0).