What are “lawyer referral services”?
To accurately answer that question in any given case, you must look at something that consumers seldom know – who owns the referral service? Is the service owned by physicians, chiropractors, or physical therapists? Is the referral service simply a handy way to funnel injured victims toward a specific medical clinic or chiropractor’s office?
What is a “lawyer referral service” supposed to accomplish?
An appropriate service should help consumers by providing information about what consumers can and should do in the event of a tragic accident. The service should provide information about highly qualified attorneys in the consumer’s geographical area who practice in the legal specialty needed by the consumer. Finally, the service should provide a way for consumers to get in contact with the service’s attorney member of the consumer’s choice.
What have some lawyer referral services become?
Lawyer referral services are not regulated by the Florida Bar Association. In fact, other than the state attorney general or Better Business Bureau, there is little regulation and no oversight.
Some “lawyer referral services” have sadly evolved into nothing more than “medical referral services” and particularly in the area of motor vehicle accidents. Many of the services are reportedly steering accident victims to “medical clinics” who rapidly institute treatment of the injured person’s injuries and charge that treatment against PIP (personal injury protection) limits under the victims auto policy. Typically the policy limits for PIP are $10,000 and theses services quickly eat up the available limits with medical charges.
What these referral services fail to tell patients is that PIP can also be applied to things like loss of wages and incidental expenses incurred in the course of medical treatment. As a result, medical expenses rapidly eat up available PIP amounts before the injured victim can take advantage of lost wage compensation.
There have also been reports of improprieties in the way injured people are referred to attorneys. In some cases, it has been reported that:
- Some referral services have used advertising to disguise direct solicitations to physicians and lawyers.
- A patient injured in an accident calls the referral service number and is sent to a clinic. Although the patient had not requested a lawyer, he or she is met at the clinic by a lawyer or representative of a lawyer before seeing the doctor.
- The patient, in filling out paperwork, unknowingly signs a retainer for a law firm included with the medical paperwork, which is not explained.
- Patients showing up at the clinic after a referral are told they must see an attorney first, provided by the referral service, before they will be treated, even though they had not requested a lawyer.
- Some patients, unhappy with their treatment at the clinic, have gone to their designated lawyer for help, only to be told the lawyer cannot help them because he or she also represents the clinic, perhaps in seeking PIP benefits from the insurance company.
It is bad enough to be the victim of an accident that causes injuries, loss of income and medical costs. Consumers should arm themselves with information to protect themselves in the event of an accident and consumers should not blindly sign documents without fully understanding them.
Here are some common sense things a consumer can do to avoid being taken advantage of:
- Know that you do not need to contact an attorney or a lawyer referral service from the scene of the accident. In fact, that may be the very worst place to make this type of decision.
- If you need an attorney, do your homework or ask a trusted loved one to do the research for you. Look at lawyer websites, call and talk to law firms, and request all the information that will allow you to make an informed decision. Much of that information should be readily available on the law firm website.
- Ask your family physician for a referral to a trusted medical provider or; ask friends and family for the name of a physician you would want to see.
- Do not sign any documents you do not fully understand. Do not be intimidated. Ask questions about every aspect of documents you are being asked to sign until you fully appreciate what you are signing.
- Consult a trusted attorney, whether you ultimately hire one or not.
- Understand that reputable attorneys do not undertake representation of people who do not need a lawyer.
So, in the event of an accident, take care of yourself, your loved ones and your injuries first. Guard your legal rights and do not sign documents unless you know what you are signing. Know who you are hiring and for what purpose.
Know that ethical lawyers do not send lawyers or investigators to you unless you have contacted them first. If you are visited by someone representing a law firm, be sure they are someone you contacted first.