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The State Bar of Georgia’s Board of Governors will consider a proposal Friday that could force thousands of lawyers who don’t have professional liability insurance to disclose their coverage status to their clients. If the proposal passes and is approved by the Georgia Supreme Court, Georgia lawyers will have to disclose in writing their lack of professional liability insurance to potential clients or risk disbarment. The proposal would also require “uninsured” attorneys — those who have less than $100,000 in coverage for errors and omissions not subject to diminishment for legal fees or other expenses, or less than $500,000 aggregate coverage — to reveal their lack of coverage in any media advertisements they purchase. Supporters are hailing the proposal as progressive. “There are not many bars willing to take this step. If you’re going to put it on a scale, it’s somewhere between commendable and courageous,” said Anthony L. Waybright, president of Professionals Choice Risk Services, an Atlanta insurance company. Although the bar does not keep statistics of uninsured lawyers, Waybright estimated that between 10 percent and 20 percent of state lawyers fall into that category. Proponents expect some opposition from attorneys who might worry that the disclosure rule could interfere with client relationships and unfairly target solo practitioners and attorneys in high-risk areas who can’t afford premiums. Such premiums vary widely but typically range between $500 and $1,000 annually for the minimum insurance the bar would require. Lawyers in higher risk fields such as intellectual property law or criminal defense often face considerably steeper premiums. Lee Sexton, president of Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called the proposal “the most outrageous rule I’ve ever heard.” “I have never heard of such a cavalier proposal that is so outrageous as the one that the State Bar has chosen to require lawyers to paint a target on their backs,” said Sexton, a partner with Sexton & Morris, a criminal defense firm. He suggested the State Bar is “in bed” with insurance companies. “Why else would we have such a rule?” he said. The initiative’s sponsor, Robert B. Wedge, said the public has a right to know whether a lawyer is insured, but that right is often overlooked. “I think it’s probably in the same category of going to a physician,” said Wedge, chair of the bar’s malpractice insurance committee and a partner at Shapiro Fussell. “When you go in and have a surgical procedure, you assume the surgeon has insurance. But it’s not something the normal patient will ask their doctor before a procedure. “I think there are probably instances where clients have been hurt,” he said. “The question is how widespread is it, and is it a significant problem, and I think that’s one of the issues the State Bar will be concerned with trying to determine.” INSURANCE TREND If the bar passes the proposal, it would join several other state bars that recently have adapted their insurance requirements. State bars in Alaska, New Hampshire and Ohio require attorneys to notify their clients in writing if they are uninsured. In South Dakota, lawyers with less than $100,000 coverage per claim must spell out their status on their letterhead. The Georgia Bar also could opt for a compromise and consider a more indirect disclosure format, similar to a recent measure that the American Bar Association’s Board of Governors passed by a vote of 213 to 202 in August. The rule change requires lawyers to disclose on their annual ABA registration statements whether they carry insurance. Six state bars — Delaware, Nebraska, North Carolina, Michigan, Virginia and Illinois — require attorneys to meet a similar standard. But Wedge said the average person would not contact the bar for such information. “Would a prospective client know to go to the State Bar and request information of this type before engaging an attorney?” Wedge asked. “The premise that putting it on your annual registration would inform prospective clients presumes that a client would know that it’s even an issue. And it presumes they would know where to go to find the answer.” PROTECTING CLIENTS Waybright said the Georgia Bar’s addressing of the proposal amounts to a major policy shift. “If you’re thinking you only buy insurance to protect yourself, then you can make the argument that it should be the attorney’s choice,” he said. “But the committee is saying you buy insurance to protect the client.” If the proposal is passed, it could take as little as four months to become standard practice, said Clifton A. Brashier Jr., the bar’s executive director. The board must recommend such a rule change to the state Supreme Court. Wedge cautioned that he doesn’t expect a cakewalk when he presents the proposal at Friday’s Board of Governors meeting, which convenes at 2 p.m. in Callaway Gardens. “I think that it would represent enough of a fundamental change in the rule that I don’t think it’s just going to be a routine type of thing,” he said. “I don’t know how the group may come down on it, but I don’t anticipate it’s just going to be a five-minute presentation and everybody votes yes.”

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