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Georgia Bar Journal
October 2019, Vol. 25, No. 2

Tackling Case Runners

Anyone who has seen the movie adaptation of John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker” surely remembers Danny DeVito’s entertaining portrayal of the prototypical personal injury “case runner,” Deck Shifflet.

In a particularly memorable scene, Shifflet and young lawyer Rudy Baylor, played by Matt Damon, are on a client solicitation run to the hospital and have just made their pitch in the room of an injured patient when, leaving the hospital, Baylor exclaims, “That was blatant ambulance chasing.” 

“Right!” Shifflet replies. “You’d better learn quick, or you’re going to starve.”

Unfortunately, illegal and unethical client solicitation is not so entertaining. Case runners, who prey on recently injured victims and their families, are nothing new to the legal profession. 

The use of these true “ambulance chasers” on the part of some personal injury lawyers has for decades been a prevalent practice. In Georgia, it is an issue that has been around for a long time but in recent years has become more common and, because of advances in technology, more sophisticated.

Gone are the days when runners operate in the shadows. Even though the practice is illegal in Georgia and stands in violation of State Bar rules about client solicitation, I have listened as lawyers from Athens to Savannah to Atlanta shared first-hand accounts of lawyers not only engaging in case-running, but boasting about their use of the practice. 

So brash have some Bar members become that they even employ hospital personnel themselves to generate personal injury clients. This practice is the subject of a currently pending lawsuit in Athens-Clarke County, alleging an attorney hired a staff member of a local hospital to run cases for him.

This illegal, unprofessional and unethical form of client solicitation casts a bad light on the legal profession. It makes us the worst caricature of ourselves. All the while, it operates to the detriment of the public, whose best interests we are sworn to serve. 

Rule 7.3 (c) specifies, “A lawyer shall not compensate or give anything of value to a person or organization to recommend or secure the lawyer’s employment by a client, or as a reward for having made a recommendation resulting in the lawyer’s employment by a client; . . . The maximum penalty for a violation of this Rule is disbarment.” While there are exceptions for the use of advertising and referral services that meet specific qualifications, this rule makes clear lawyers are not permitted to pay another person for channeling professional work and are prohibited from accepting work generated by direct client solicitation.

As a self-regulating profession, the State Bar of Georgia has the responsibility to determine the best method for combatting this insidious form of client solicitation in order to protect the public and serve the justice system. This is why I have appointed a special committee to research the problem and make recommendations for curtailing the use of case runners.

One approach likely to be employed is a public awareness campaign. Educating lawyers about permissible client solicitation is important. Even more important is the development of materials alerting those suffering from a personal injury and their families about the practice of illegal client solicitation, how to identify it and what to do when they encounter it.

Co-chaired by State Bar Young Lawyers Division Past President Michael Geoffroy and DeKalb County State Court Judge Dax Lopez, both of whom are members of the State Bar’s Board of Governors, this special committee is comprised of all stakeholders in the fight against illegal client solicitation, including personal injury lawyers, civil defense lawyers, the judiciary, prosecuting attorneys and the attorney general’s office. 

I want to thank Michael, Judge Lopez and committee members Tracee Ready Benzo of Atlanta, Kelly Campanella of the attorney general’s office, Andrew Conn of Atlanta, Fulton County Solicitor General Keith Gammage, Ryan Ingram of Marietta, John Jackson of Carrollton, YLD Past President Nicole Leet of Atlanta, D’Andrea J’Lynn Morning of Grady Health System in Atlanta, David William Bobo Mullens III of Savannah, Clay O’Daniel of Atlanta, Paul Painter III of Savannah, Brandon Peak of Columbus, Peter Weredesheim of Atlanta and Thomas Worthy of Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta. State Bar General Counsel Paula Frederick is the committee’s staff liaison.

According to Co-Chair Michael Geoffroy, “Getting these stakeholders to the table is the really important part. We definitely want to include both plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys to ensure we have multiple points of view represented. The General Counsel’s Office will play an important role, testifying before the committee as to what they are doing about those complaints currently and to ensure we stay on the good side of the Bar Rules. This is something we’re going to look back on in five to 10 years, and when this does bubble over, and there is a high-profile arrest, people are going to ask what the Bar has been doing about it. What we’re going to do first is try to raise awareness of the issue, in a targeted way, especially in hospitals where people come across case runners most often.” 

To be sure, the Bar will not be engaging in “sting” operations to catch case runners in the act. What we will do, however, is launch an educational initiative so hospital staff and patients know how to identify the use of case runners and what to do when they observe illegal client solicitation. 

We will be working with the state attorney general’s office to spread the message to hospital staff, patients and visitors in a manner similar to the state’s highly effective public education effort to combat human trafficking. This is not an issue of the same gravity as human trafficking, but we’d like to replicate that effort in hospitals in order to fight against illegal client solicitation.

Georgia is, of course, not alone in the prevalence of case runners. In Texas, three Houston-area personal injury lawyers, a legal aid and a clinic owner were recently arrested and charged with the offense of “barratry,” another term for ambulance chasing, for unlawfully soliciting clients through recruiters, along with other offenses including tax evasion, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. 

Texas State Bar spokesperson Claire Reynolds told the Houston Chronicle that illegal client solicitation is difficult to uncover. “To assist us in stopping barratry,” Reynolds said, “we need people to file complaints. We work with local law enforcement, but we don’t know about it unless you tell us about it.”

As our special Client Solicitation Committee moves forward with its work, I would be grateful for your thoughts, information or suggestions that I could share with the members. Send an email to president@gabar.org, or, better yet, use the new #ShapeTheBar link on the Bar’s website to join the effort to tackle case runners in Georgia.

Darrell Sutton
President, State Bar of Georgia
president@gabar.org

 

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President's PageShape The Bar Banner
Georgia Bar Journal
August 2019, Vol. 25, No. 1

Continuing to Listen: #ShapeTheBar


Darrell Sutton HeadshotIt was important as I prepared to take office to hear from this state’s lawyers. To hear about the issues you feel are important to the State Bar, your practices and our profession. 

So I set out on the road, visiting with and listening to small groups of lawyers and judges in places like Rome, Macon, Augusta and Savannah. With the help of the Board of Governors members in the areas I visited, I was able to sit with and hear from many of you. I heard what concerns you, the issues you are facing and the role the Bar plays in your professional lives. Your willingness to share helped shape many of the initiatives we will accomplish over my 12 months leading our profession. (These initiatives can be found in the remarks shared with the Board of Governors during the Annual Meeting. See page 40 of the August 2019 Georgia Bar Journal.)

My only regret is that I could not meet with and hear from more of you. In a state with 159 counties and with our Bar’s membership now exceeding 50,000, my 12 months in office are simply not enough to reach everyone—either individually or in small groups—on a live, in-person listening tour.  

But by leveraging modern technology, the listening tour can continue. Utilizing online tools, we are launching a virtual listening tour called #ShapeTheBar. The goal is to continue and expand the conversations begun during the months leading to my inauguration—both during the next 12 months and beyond. We want to hear your opinions, ideas and concerns, and at the same time, ensure every member of the State Bar
of Georgia is aware of the benefits of Bar membership.

The virtual listening tour will be structured around three themes:

  • Programs: What are the Bar’s programs, and what benefits do Bar members receive from them? What I heard time and again from many of you is that the Bar could do a better job communicating to the members all the benefits of State Bar membership. The Bar has substantial resources available to enhance your professional life, and we want you to be better informed of this broad array of benefits available to you.
  • Initiatives: What are Bar leadership’s initiatives, and how will Bar members benefit from them?
  • Service: What opportunities does the Bar offer for members to serve the legal profession through participation in Bar committees, sections and leadership positions?

We are creating a space for #ShapeTheBar on www.gabar.org where Bar members can share opinions, suggestions and concerns. We will promote the initiative via email as well as through the Bar’s social media channels and in the Georgia Bar Journal. 

Some of the questions we expect to ask and answer through this conversation with membership are:

  • What resources does the Bar offer its members?
  • How can members take advantage of those resources?
  • How does the Bar serve its members and the public?
  • What resources are not offered that would be beneficial to our members?

But this is only a starting point. We want to hear (and answer) questions you have as you have them. We want to know how best to communicate Bar benefits. And we want to create a forum for you to provide input about the future of the Bar and feedback on Bar initiatives as they develop. As you share, we will share, from time to time providing the results of your input on www.gabar.org, in the Journal and via social media. 

Think about it this way: If you and I were sitting at a table together having lunch and I asked you to tell me your thoughts about the legal profession in Georgia, what would you say? If I asked you to tell me one thing the Bar could do to make the practice of law easier for you, what would you say? That’s what I want to hear—nothing is too big or small. Email president@gabar.org with #ShapeTheBar as the subject line, or send feedback via social media with the tag #ShapeTheBar. 

This is your opportunity to make the Bar better, and the Bar’s opportunity to make your professional life better. I’m excited to continue this conversation with y’all. So please share. Help me shape the Bar. I’m listening!

Darrell Sutton
President, State Bar of Georgia
president@gabar.org