So says a recent legal opinion from the Virginia State Bar association that addressed lawyers’ participation in certain lead-sharing and networking groups.
“It’s one of those issues that been percolating for some time,” said Eric Perkins, who runs Perkins Law in Glen Allen.
“I think the opinion will make people think twice and will certainly give people pause,” said Perkins, who says he’s not a member of any networking groups.
The latest opinion, which can be found here, reaffirms an opinion the VSB made two years ago and specifically says it is unethical for a lawyer in Virginia to be in a networking group where membership is dependent on the number of leads a person passes on to fellow members.
“Where lawyers are required to pass referrals, that can put their judgment at risk,” said Mark Deutsch, executive director and CEO of BNI-Central Virginia, one of the larger networking and lead-sharing groups in town.
Deutsch said he has heard from many of his lawyer members since the recent opinion was issued. BNI doesn’t specifically require members to pass referrals, but members are encouraged to help fellow BNI members find new business.
Virginia is one of only a few states in which the bar association has made such a conclusion. The others are Maryland, Massachusetts, Arizona, New Hampshire, Oregon, New York and Montana.
As the VSB’s opinion states, participation in such a group “may create undisclosed conflicts of interest, compromise a lawyer’s professional independence and risk violation of solicitation rules.”
One of the main arguments against participation is that exchanging leads violates the prohibition against a lawyer giving anything of value to a person or organization for securing employment by a client.
Passing leads or referrals would be considered things of value.
The opinion also said that a lawyer who is beholden to an organization might feel obligated to accept a case he is not competent to handle because the referral came from someone in the networking group.
So what’s a lawyer to do? They, just like any other professionals, have to find ways to drum up business.
There are some lawyer-specific lead programs that are sanctioned by the VSB, including the Virginia Lawyer Referral Service. Through this program, lawyers pay an annual fee to be included in a system that the general public can search when in need of an attorney.
Michael Schwartz covers the legal industry for BizSense. Please send news tips to [email protected].