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For decades, potential litigants in search of legal representation have found it by flipping through the yellow pages to the Hartford County, Conn., Bar Association’s prominently placed “Need an Attorney? … We’re Here to Help” ad. But an apparent turf war between private law firms advertising in the yellow pages and a for-profit, attorney-referral service whose ad also appears ahead of the “attorneys” listings has put the county bar association in jeopardy of losing its coveted spot in the Hartford-area directory. On Oct. 2, the association’s board of directors, according to John L. Bonee III, chairman of the county bar’s lawyer-referral service committee, voted to seek legislation in Connecticut that would allow only nonprofit groups like itself to operate under the banner of “attorney-referral services.” But barring the passage of such a law, the association may pull the ad, rather than letting it become lost behind the rest of the directory’s attorney advertisements, according to Bonee. In April, Southern New England Telecommunications Co. advised bar leaders in writing that, in future yellow pages, ads for all lawyer-referral groups will appear after the listings for attorneys, in order to discourage legal outfits from trying to gain a placement advantage over competitors by advertising under the guise of an attorney-referral service. Referral services ads currently appear first, Bonee explained, because the “r” in “attorney referral” alphabetically comes before the “s” in attorneys. “It’s really a policing issue,” maintained SNET spokeswoman Sue Schaffer in an interview Oct. 9. “It’s not possible for us to monitor every single advertisement that is placed in the yellow pages.” ‘A SERVICE OF LAST RESORT’ SNET’s policy change, Bonee maintained, was made in response to complaints from lawyers with full-page ads in the Hartford directory about a half-page advertisement for SelectCounsel, a for-profit referral service, which appears before theirs in the 2000-2001 yellow pages. The lawyer-advertisers, he said, took umbrage with SelectCounsel receiving the same preferential placement as the county bar’s attorney referral service, and pressured SNET to move the ad elsewhere in the directory. County bar leaders, according to Bonee, discredit the SelectCounsel ad as “misleading,” and potentially in violation of several ethical rules that regulate lawyers’ advertisements, including Rule 7.1(3) of the Rules of Professional Conduct. That rule, which prohibits lawyers from comparing themselves to their competitors, could apply to the heading of SelectCounsel’s ad which reads: “How do you find a great lawyer? It’s simple. Call SelectCounsel.” But Ridgefield attorney Richard J. Fricke, one of the three lawyers who own SelectCounsel, said the limited liability company’s use of the word “great” is justified. “We do use the better attorneys in the state,” insisted Fricke, a 30-year veteran practitioner. In addition to its advertisements, the company also is located online at www.selectcounsel.com. But unlike at other new for-profit online referral services, lawyers, according to Fricke, do not pay or sign up to belong to SelectCounsel’s referral network. Nor does SelectCounsel charge clients a fee for referring their cases to an attorney, Fricke noted. It does, however, earn a portion of the lawyer’s contingency fee should a case produce an award or be settled, he said. “The vast bulk of what we do is non-fee-generating,” Fricke proclaimed. Less than 5 percent of the responses it receives result in a referral to a private attorney, he added. Much more frequently, he said, callers are directed to legal aid organizations. It also thoroughly screens attorneys before sending them cases. Fricke insisted that an AV (highest) rating from Martindale-Hubbell is required, but that is only the beginning of the screening process. As for the placement of its yellow pages ad, Fricke said the company didn’t ask to be put there. Nor would it object to the ad being moved, he added. “That’s [SNET's] prerogative.” Bonee said Hartford County isn’t the only bar association grappling with the issue. “This is happening all over the country,” he maintained. That includes Texas, where rancor over the placement of yellow pages ads by other for-profit companies resulted in the adoption of legislation under which only state or local bar-approved organizations, according to Bonee, can refer to themselves as “attorney-referral services.” Bonee, of Bonee Law Offices in Hartford, said the local bar plans to urge state lawmakers to pass a similar law here. The association, he added, has long “performed a service of last resort” to people who don’t know where to get appropriate legal help. But now “the public is in jeopardy of being deprived of that.”

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