These summaries were prepared by McGuireWoods LLP lawyer Thomas E. Spahn. They are based on the letter opinions issued by the Virginia State Bar. Any editorial comments reflect Mr. Spahn's current personal views, and not the opinions of the Virginia State Bar, McGuireWoods or its clients. 
 
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  Topic: 47 - Lawyer Referral Services
LEO NumTopicsSummaryDate
1029

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13-Marketing - Miscellaneous

29-Advancing Fees and Costs

47-Lawyer Referral Services

55-Firm Names and Letterhead

[WITHDRAWN 4/18] A lawyer referral service may not call itself "The Litigation Group" without explaining that it is not a law firm, and may not use the statement "no recovery -- no fee" because clients will be liable for costs even if they lose [explained in LEO 1750].2/1/1988
0926

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47-Lawyer Referral Services

[WITHDRAWN 9/16] A lawyer referral service: may limit referrals to a certain number of lawyers in each locality, as long as there is no public deception; may be a profit-making organization; may not improperly indicate lawyers' specialties; may not be organized by a lawyer so that telephone calls to the referral service go directly to the lawyer's office.6/11/1987
1689

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47-Lawyer Referral Services

[WITHDRAWN 9/16] A lawyer referral service: may list practice areas; must have enough lawyers in each geographic area to avoid deceiving the public (the Bar had earlier suggested that each area should have at least five lawyers); may require that participating lawyers agree not to join other referral services (because such an agreement does not limit the right to practice law and does not extend beyond the termination of the relationship with the referral service).12/9/1996
1543

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13-Marketing - Miscellaneous

47-Lawyer Referral Services

[WITHDRAWN 9/16] It is improper for a lawyer to join a for-profit lawyer referral service that exclusively refers individuals in four Virginia counties to the lawyer for traffic matters.8/12/1993
1348

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13-Marketing - Miscellaneous

47-Lawyer Referral Services

[WITHDRAWN 9/16] This LEO discusses lawyer referral services.6/24/1990
0407

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38-Fee Splitting

47-Lawyer Referral Services

A lawyer may participate in a local bar association's lawyer referral service, since any forwarding fee paid to the referral service is not impermissible fee-splitting. 7/21/1981
0479

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47-Lawyer Referral Services

A lawyer may participate in a referral system for paying work established by a legal aid office. 7/21/1982
0467

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47-Lawyer Referral Services

A lawyer may serve on a referral panel arranged by a local legal aid office. 9/20/1982
1175

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47-Lawyer Referral Services

82-Advertising

A lawyer referral service advertisement must clearly indicate whether it is for a law firm or a lawyer referral service. 1/31/1989
0738

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47-Lawyer Referral Services

A lawyer referral service should assure the competence of its members, should publish a criteria for membership and may charge a membership fee. 11/18/1985
1068

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16-Lawyer's Personal Interests

47-Lawyer Referral Services

A lawyer representing himself or herself may not settle a case in return for the defendant's promise to refer clients to the lawyer, because the lawyer would be giving something of value in exchange for a recommendation. 4/11/1988
1751

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8-Bills and Fees

47-Lawyer Referral Services

A non-profit lawyer referral service operated by a local bar association may require that participating lawyers pay the service a percentage of fees that they collect from individuals referred to the lawyer by the service, as long as the percentage is reasonable. 5/7/2001
0910

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13-Marketing - Miscellaneous

47-Lawyer Referral Services

An out-of-state corporation may obtain clients for a Virginia lawyer as long as it complies with the lawyer referral rules, but any public statements that violate the ethics code would amount to a violation by a participating lawyer. 5/4/1987
1846

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31-Protecting and Disclosing Confidences and Secrets

47-Lawyer Referral Services

50-Lawyer-Owned Businesses

Lawyers may not join a lead-sharing organization in which membership "is often dependent on the number of leads a member passes," because: such "reciprocal" referrals amounts to a "quid pro quo payment for services" in violation of the prohibition on providing something of value in return for a referral (and possibly in violation of § 54.1-3939's and § 54.1-3941's ban on "running and capping," as explained in a 12/7/10 letter from Virginia's Attorney General); such participation puts the client's interest at risk because the lawyer "may be obligated to refer a client to a particular member specialist when a non-member specialist may be better suited to meet the client's needs"; the lawyer faces a personal conflict of interest because the lawyer may not feel free "to choose the most appropriate specialty provider for a client"; "[t]he mere disclosure of a client's name and specific need in certain circumstances may be enough to violate the Rule without consent of the client." A lawyer may own an interest in a company that is such a lead-sharing organization "as long as the lawyer is not a member." Lawyers may also engage in voluntary referrals to other lawyers and professionals, but may not join "a hypothetical organization which bases membership on the commitment to provide referrals." (2/2/09; revised 12/29/10)12/29/2010
1750

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47-Lawyer Referral Services

82-Advertising

85-Business Cards

This compendium opinion (initially issued on 3/20/01, and revised on 4/4/06, 12/18/08 and 4/20/18 [in light of 2017 Virginia Rules changes]) provides guidelines about lawyer advertising: advertisements using actors to portray lawyers or employees must disclose "that the actor is not truly an employee or member of the firm." Advertisements may not use terms such as "no recovery, no fee". "We guarantee to win, or you don't pay." "We are paid only if you collect." "No charge unless we win" and must explain that litigation expenses and court costs would be payable regardless of outcome (because the public "generally may not distinguish the differences between the terms 'fee' and 'costs'"). Lawyers may use a corporate trade or fictitious name for their firm as long as they practice under that name (and use the name on signage, letterheads, business cards, etc.) and the name is not misleading. It is “potentially misleading” for lawyers to advertise their “use of a non-exclusive office space, including an executive office rental,” if the lawyer does not actually provide legal services there (quoting Virginia LEO 1872’s warning that lawyers may not list such space to mislead prospective clients about the law practice’s geographic diversity or resources). Advertisements may not indicate that automobile accident victims "will have to consult an attorney." Lawyers participating in lawyer referral services must comply with all ethics rules and earlier LEOs, and may not falsely state or imply that the lawyer's inclusion on a referral list is based on quality, that the referral list includes all lawyers or law firms eligible for the list on some objective criteria, or that there are many lawyers participating in the service in a certain geographic area. After the 2017 Rules change eliminating the disclaimer obligation when lawyers advertise specific or cumulative case results, it “can be misleading” for lawyers to advertise “specific case results” depending on the circumstances (for instance, a lawyer advertising that she obtained a $1 million verdict after refusing a $2 million settlement offer would have to explain those additional facts). Advertisements may not use statements such as "the best lawyers" or "the most experienced" because they “cannot be factually substantiated.” Clients' testimonials may not make claims that lawyers could not themselves make, but may include such "soft endorsements" as "the lawyer always returned phone calls” and “the attorney always appeared concerned." Lawyers may state that an A.V. Martindale-Hubbell rating represents its "highest rating." Lawyers may state that they are included in publications such as "The Best Lawyers in America," but must describe the years they were included in such publications if they are ever delisted, may not include any reference to such lists if the lists are "not based upon objective criteria or a legitimate peer review process" or are "available to any lawyer who is willing to pay a fee," must not parlay inclusion on such a list into a claim that "I am the best lawyer in America," and may not "impute any such endorsement to others in the law firm not so recognized." Lawyers may not use the word "specialist" or "specialize" if such terms are false or misleading. Lawyers may claim to be “certified as a specialist,” as long as the claim is not false or misleading, and they identify the organization that “purportedly conferred the certification” (which “must undertake some bona fide evaluation” rather than awarding certificates to any lawyers who pay a fee or joins the organization). Lawyers may not use the word "expert" or "expertise" if "the claim cannot be factually substantiated."].4/20/2018
1014

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47-Lawyer Referral Services

Two partners in a law firm may not set up a lawyer referral service in which they would use a separate telephone within the firm without advising callers of the lawyers' connection with the firm, because it would be deceptive. 1/7/1988

Copyright 2000, Thomas E. Spahn