Assistant Statewide Bar Counsel Kerry J. O'Connell said the guidelines for direct mail advertising are in Practice Book section 2-28A and in Rule 7.2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. "A lot of people think lawyers can't solicit, but they can if they follow the rules," said O'Connell.
For personal injury and wrongful death matters, there's a 40-day waiting period, to avoid the appearance of ambulance chasing. Lawyers can send solicitations to former or existing clients and not have to file an example of the letter with the bar counsel's office. Letters to unknown prospects need to be filed, and will be held for three months for possible random review. Just because the advertising letter is filed doesn't automatically mean it will be read, let alone judged for ethical compliance, she said.
Bridgeport lawyer Edward Gavin, a former president of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said the letters can create problems in several ways.
Bar rules say a solicitation letter is supposed to tell the reader to disregard the letter if the defendant is already represented by another lawyer. But just what entails representation isn't always clear. Gavin says some of his clients have been returning to him intermittently for more than 20 years, but until an appearance is filed in the new case, a former client is fair game -- which Gavin isn't entirely happy about. Secondly, he says the letters he's seen sometimes list the time and place of the prospect's next court appearance, and direct him to call the law office for an appointment.
"Many of the people who get arrested are not very sophisticated people," Gavin noted. The letter can sound like it's from the court as an official directive. "I think a lot of people get snookered into believing they're supposed to go ahead and contact that soliciting lawyer," said Gavin.
Solak's letters say -- correctly -- that he's a former prosecutor. That's led to another kind of confusion, said Klein, the Hartford defense attorney, who had one client who mistakenly thought he was being told he had to pay the prosecutor something.
John Maxwell, another criminal defense lawyer, practices in the Hartford office of Brown, Paindiris & Scott. Maxwell collaborates with senior partner Richard Brown, a well-known criminal defender who works from the firm's Glastonbury office. Maxwell said of the direct mail letters, "People get them within two or three days of their name showing up in the newspaper. I've had plenty of clients get them."
For Connecticut, this method of drumming up legal business has been increasing over the last three years or so. "It may be driven by hard times, but I think the practice is a bit sleazy -- it doesn't really look good," said Tara Knight, of New Haven's Knight & Cerritelli, a former president of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
In 2008 and 2009, three advisory opinions were issued by the Statewide Grievance Committee about direct mailings to prospects listed in police arrest logs. Opinion #09-04933 is typical. It approved a letter that began, after the salutation, with the caveat, "If you have already retained a lawyer for this matter, please disregard this letter," and states that fees are "based on ability to pay."