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Published: Sunday, 7/2/2006

Proposal would slow solicitation by lawyers

BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A proposed rule under review by the Ohio Supreme Court would ban lawyers from soliciting potential clients within 30 days of an accident.

A ban on mail solicitations is among dozens of changes that the state's high court is considering in the rules of professional conduct for lawyers who practice law in Ohio.

Lawyers always have been restricted as to what can be sent in direct-mail solicitations. However, the proposed amendment calls for a cooling-off period of 30 days in which lawyers could not initiate contact with a client in wrongful death, personal injury, and other actions related to an accident or a disaster.

Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer has been a long-time supporter of such a prohibition. He believes grieving parties should be given space to make sound decisions, and they should not be subject to duress during tragic events.

"The immediate and excessive amount of solicitations a person receives while dealing with the aftermath of an accident or loss of a family member can often seem overwhelming and intrusive," the chief justice said.

The proposed amendment is among dozens of rule changes being considered in court's Professional Code of Responsibility, which governs the conduct of attorneys.

An announcement by the state Supreme Court on what rules will be enacted is expected this month or early August.

Rick Dove, director of attorney services for the court, said the changes would bring the court's rules of professional conduct in line with those embraced by the American Bar Association.

A task force of judges and attorneys appointed by Justice Moyer in 2003 undertook the task of reviewing the code to conform with the ABA Model Rules. They issued a report in November that recommended 54 rule changes.

The proposed amendments are regarded as the most sweeping changes in the rules since the adoption of the current Ohio Code of Professional Responsibility by the court in 1970.

The issues in the amendments ranged from client protection to professional delivery of legal services.

Among the changes are rules involving the standards for communicating with clients; clarifying what constitutes communication between attorneys and prospective clients, and when the communication must be kept confidential.

"It's a massive change. Not so much in the way the rules are affected, but in the way they are organized. This is the first time since 1970 that there has been this major restructuring,'' said Jonathan Cherry, counsel to the Toledo Bar Association.

The Supreme Court accepted comments on the solicitation ban and the numerous other rules changes until last February.

Mr. Dove said comments on the solicitation ban overwhelmingly outnumbered the other proposed rule changes. He said 627 statements were received for the 30-day ban alone, compared to 83 comments that addressed other proposals in the conduct code.

"I would say more than 500 of those comments were from lay clients, and mostly from people who opposed adopting the rule," he said.

Mr. Cherry said the Bar association receives complaints periodically about attorney solicitations.

"A vast majority of attorneys who send solicitations know what the rules are and comply with them. However, the people who receive the communications are sometimes offended," he said.

The solicitation ban won the support of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers.

Its president, Phil Fulton, said the academy has always discouraged members from engaging in direct mailings because of the negative connotations.

"People have to be able to trust their attorneys and trust the civil justice system. There are always a few bad apples who will ruin it for the rest of the others. If there is something we can do to improve the profession and perception of attorneys then it is a good thing," said Lauren Goode, a spokesman for the academy.

Mr. Dove said the proposed rule changes would go into effect in early 2007 to allow attorneys ample opportunity to receive training and education.

Contact Mark Reiter at: markreiter@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.



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