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Chasing an Ambulance Won't Catch Clients

But lawyers can catch real grief for unethical practices.

“Ambulance chaser.” 

If I blog about anything even remotely controversial, whether it’s civil rights or raising hens in your back yard, someone is going to accuse me of being an ambulance chaser.

I never take it personally. Ninety-five percent of my business comes from referrals, based on the recommendation of other attorneys and former clients. Chasing ambulances wouldn’t be worth the effort.

But for some reason, people seem to think that the term “ambulance chaser” is simply an all-purpose insult that can be used against any attorney for any reason. As a lawyer, I’d like to encourage my critics to use the insult more precisely.

What exactly is an ambulance chaser? In the distant past, meaning before I finished law school, there were lawyers who would literally follow ambulances to the hospital, and then try to sign up the injured person as a client, while the person was still in the emergency room.

It was clear that these lawyers were taking advantage of patients who were in no condition to be making legal decisions.  The practice of ambulance chasing eventually was banned in every state. But lawyers are very clever at skirting rules.

If lawyers were not allowed to sign up patients in the hospital, they would simply have a non-attorney worker do the dirty work. This practice, known as “running and capping,” was used for years by unscrupulous lawyers, even after the practice was outlawed. More than a few lawyers went to jail for repeatedly violating the rules against running and capping.

Today, attorneys have much more efficient means of contacting patients without bothering to actually chase ambulances. Attorneys can simply advertise for business on television. And if some of those televisions happen to be in hospitals . . . well that’s not the attorney’s fault, is it?

Still, there is a big difference between advertising your services and sitting next to a patient on his hospital bed with a retainer agreement in your hand. The chances of pressuring a patient into signing an agreement he doesn’t understand are much lower.  For one thing, the patient has to contact the lawyer when the patient is ready to talk; the lawyer cannot simply show up in the patient’s room.

The lawyer ­can­ send a letter to the patient soliciting the patient’s business, however. The Supreme Court has ruled that this type of letter is simply another form of advertising. The letter cannot make false claims or promises, but the lawyer does have the right to contact a potential client.

Of course, there will always be a few lawyers who are willing to break the rules (and the law) in chasing after clients. A former hospital worker in Florida was arrested recently for stealing thousands of patient records and selling them to a “capper” who solicited clients for attorneys and chiropractors. The U.S. Attorney’s office is under pressure to bring criminal charges against the attorneys and chiropractors, as well.

Although the system is not perfect, any attorney who insists on being an ambulance chaser is jeopardizing his career. Even if he does not break the law, he is violating the professional rules of ethics, which can get him suspended from the practice of law, and may even get him disbarred.

So now that we all understand what an ambulance chaser is, be sure to use the insult correctly. If you disagree with something in my blog, feel free to criticize me or even insult me. There are a lot of good, creative insults out there. But “ambulance chaser?” Nah.

Have a question or a suggestion for a topic?  Email dspirgen@SpirgenLawFirm.com

Patch posts are general discussions and should not be used as advice on any specific legal matter.  If you need legal advice on a particular situation, please consult an attorney.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Dave Wilson September 06, 2012 at 03:30 PM
When my daughter broke her arm a few years back in a friend's yard and we took her to the hospital by ambulance, we started getting letters from a law firm demanding that we fill out a questionnaire. Three times. Clearly they wanted us to sue our friends. Finally I called them to stop trying to get us to sue our friends. To me, that is the definition of an ambulance chaser. They were shameless.
Earl Elevant September 07, 2012 at 07:39 AM
Gee, looks like someone touched a nerve...
Susan Ruiz Patton September 07, 2012 at 01:38 PM
It's an interesting conversation on what ambulance chasers are, what they are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do. I recently had a minor car accident and after the police report was filed, no less than 25 different lawyer/chiropractic firms called me. I felt like I was being stalked. Dennis, what are the lines these kinds of firms can't pass? Can they call you several times? Can they call you at all hours? Thanks for your expertise!
I.M. Wright September 07, 2012 at 10:28 PM
An accident becomes public record, which is where they get your info from.

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