An era ended yesterday and so did a bit of Washington court folklore. The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that lawyers cannot solicit business in the District of Columbia courthouse or even within 50 feet of it. b
The court's action orders the end of the years-long practice of the so-called Fifth Streeters, a group of a dozen or so trial lawyers who routinely button-holed defendants in the D.C. Superior Court's foyer and hallways and outside on the street to offer their services.
Critics have charged that such courthouse hustling helped turn the Superior Court into a "commodities market" where some lawyers would pounce on prospective clients more with the idea of obtaining lucrative legal fees than of furthering the judicial process.
The court's order, which adds new provisions to the professional code that lawyers in the District must follow, prohibits attorneys from soliciting business anywhere inside the courthouse or on the north, south and west sides of the courthouse. It also slaps a ban on curbside soliciting by lawyers within 50 feet of the east side of the courthouse, which is near the Municipal Building that houses the D.C. police department headquarters.
The practice of lawyers soliciting clients in the courthouse has been considered ethical only since 1978, when the city's code of professional responsibility was liberalized following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling authorizing lawyers to openly advertise their services. But, according to court insiders, the practice has quietly flourished for years.
When the official ban was lifted, however, the Fifth Streeters, so nicknamed because many of them have or once had their offices on that street near the courthouse, grew bolder.
The solicitation by the lawyers usually hit a peak in the early morning hours before daily court business got under way. Some lawyers would aggressively approach potential clients, mostly defendants in traffic cases, whip out their business cards and offer to represent them.
"There's a certain type of body-language of a potential client you can learn to read," says W. Edward Thompson, a lawyer who says he has shopped for clients in Superior Court. "You can size up a guy as soon as he comes in the door" because of the state of confusion and anxiety defendants often find themselves in when facing charges.
But Thompson, who says he thought open solicitation was a "disgrace" when it was first officially permitted in 1978, is not happy with yesterday's court ruling. "It's unconstitutional, it abridges First Amendment rights and it singles out a special class of lawyers who handle these types of cases," he said.
Thompson contends that the court "is closing its eyes to other kinds of solicitation" that flourish in Superior Court, such as the practice of lawyers who send runners to police headquarters to obtain the names and addresses of individuals who have just been charged with traffic violations and then follow up with letters to these potential clients offering to take their cases. This practice is not banned by yesterday's order.
But the new ruling was also praised.
"Our feeling is that it's about time," said Irvin Foster, an attorney and secretary of the 120-member Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association. Open solicitation, he said, "has been a visible problem for sometime. The restriction won't hurt any legitimate practitioners and it enhances the general appearance of lawyers."
D.C. Bar counsel Fred Grabowsky said, "Anything that stops it [open solicitation] makes me happy, anything that stops unseemly practices."