The D.C. Court of Appeals has proposed to end a Washington institution -- the frequent practice of lawyers aggressively soliciting clients inside and outside the District of Columbia courthouse.
The court's proposed addition to the rules lawyers in the city must follow is an effort to curb the frequent case-shopping some defense attorneys practice in the hallways and foyer of the D.C. Superior Court, which fronts on 500 Indiana Ave. NW.
The proposal would prohibit lawyers from soliciting business anywhere inside the courthouse, as well as on the sidewalks on the north, south, and west sides of the courthouse. There would be a similar prohibition within 50 feet on the east side of the courthouse, which faces the municipal building and police department.
No date has been set for the proposed rules change. The action last Friday of the Court of Appeals, which supervises the D.C. Bar to which all lawyers practicing in the city must belong, calls for comments on its proposal in the next 30 days.
D.C. Bar counsel Fred Garabowsky said soliciting clients in the courthouse has been ethical only since 1978 when the District's code of professional responsibility was liberalized after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling permitted lawyers to advertise their services. But even before then, the practice had been carried on discreetly in the D.C. courthouse.
Since its formal approval, however, some lawyers have been approaching potential clients as they enter the courthouse thrusting out their professional cards and directly offering to take their case -- even if the person already has a lawyer or would be supplied one free of charge by the court. Bar officials estimate that at least two dozen of the more than 100 regularly practicing trial attorneys engage in some kind of courthouse solicitation, much of which occurs in traffic cases.
The proposed changes are long overdue, said Judge Tim Murphy, head of the presiding in traffic court. "It will take the marketplace out of the court of justice."
The District's disciplinary rules bar lawyers from making misleading or deceptive claims in seeking clients, or soliciting prospective clients who are not physically or mentally capable of exercising "reasonable" judgements.
However, there is no curb against finding clients in the courthouse corridors, which usually occurs in the early morning hours before formal court proceedings begin.
"What happens," said W. Edward Thompson, a lawyer who says he has shopped for clients in the courthouse, "is that the lawyers sit there and watch a guy come in. He looks like he's in a strange place. He doesn't know what the hell is going on. He's looking up to see what courtroom he's going to.
"By the time he's in the door, he's been 'capped" (solicited) at least five times before he gets down the hallway."
Thompson said he has "mixed emotions" about the rules change. "Certainly it's going to affect my income. I certainly feel that I have a right to use my first amendment right. They have allowed advertising.I don't see any difference. They apparently are trying to turn the clock back."
Bar counsel Grabowsky, who said he was pleased with the proposals, has described the courthouse foyer as a "marketplace" or "commodities market" where lawyers swoop down on prospective clients "more intent on obtaining a fee than in furthering the moble aims that gave rise to our present rules."
They're like vultures," said attorney Grandison Hill.
The rules change also would require lawyers who are approached in the courthouse by defendants requesting legal services to decline to take the case and instead refer the person to the court's Criminal Justice Act office, where attorneys are assigned to indigent cases, or to a lawyer referral agency for civil cases.
Lawyers who would violate the proposed rules change would be subject to disciplinary action, which could range from a light rebuke to suspension or disbarment.
"We've been waiting for this," said Irvin Foster, an attorney and spokesman for the 120-member Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association. "It's extemely embarrassing to have a client come down to the courthouse to meet you and first thing they know, they are approached by three or four lawyers. I hope they enforce it."