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Ruling on solicitations by lawyers brings debate

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court touched Florida. How it touched the state is a matter of opinion.

It decided that the Florida Bar can make lawyers wait 30 days before they solicit accident victims or their families by mail.

Some say the court's decision was based on constitutional principles. Others say the Constitution wasn't the guiding light for the decision _ gut feelings were.

"I'm very pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court thinks that it is appropriate for the Supreme Court of Florida and the Florida Bar to take steps to improve our profession," said Tampa lawyer Ben Hill, a former Bar president who helped draft the Bar's rule in 1991.

Hill said the Bar worked carefully to draft a rule that would improve the legal system without invading lawyers' right to free speech. The court recognized that the Bar had a legitimate interest in maintaining public confidence in the legal system, he said.

But a Tampa lawyer referral service called Went For It Inc., owned by G. Stewart McHenry, and Clearwater personal injury lawyer John T. Blakely disagreed with the rule. Fort Lauderdale lawyer Bruce Rogow represented them in a case against the Bar.

Rogow argued that the state should not be allowed to ban truthful commercial speech, even for 30 days.

"I think the (Supreme Court) decision works hard to get around established constitutional legal principles," Rogow said. "It reflects the strong feelings that surround lawyer advertising.

"Let's face it: The judges are lawyers. They are not going to be as objective about lawyer advertising as they are about beer ads."

But Rogow said he wasn't bitter, nor all that surprised.

"I was worried from the beginning," he said. "The argument went very well. But when it took so long to decide, I started telling my friends I thought we were going to lose."

Hill, meanwhile, said he walked away from oral arguments with mixed reactions, unsure how the court would decide. As it turned out, it decided in his favor.

The court's opinion won't just affect Florida Bar rules, but it's likely to be studied by legal scholars who will try to predict future cases. Also, it may affect how other state bars draft rules and how other courts react to them. For example, the state bar of Texas recently tightened its advertising rules, which led to a federal court challenge.

But for now, in Florida, the decision means lawyers can't contact accident victims or their families for 30 days. In the past, the Bar had received hundreds of letters or calls of complaint about lawyers contacting victims too soon, Hill said.

Some solicitation letters from lawyers would arrive on the day of a funeral or a wake, Hill said.

Now, if the Bar receives such a complaint, it will look into the allegation. If the complaint is found to be true, lawyers would be sanctioned by the Bar.