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Lawyers are divided over WhoCanISue.com

The Florida-based referral website makes the legal profession look bad, some lawyers say. But those who advertise with it say it's been great for business.

October 11, 2009|Missy Diaz

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Have you been bitten by a vicious dog? Been the victim of a surgical mishap? A sexual assault on a cruise ship? There's a lawyer waiting for your call.

Boca Raton, Fla.-based firm WhoCanISue.com has scores of billboards and bus-shelter signs dominating the local landscape. The service matches website visitors with lawyers.

Choose your complaint from a drop-down menu -- nursing home abuse, for example -- and then a sub-category, such as bedsores, dehydration or falls and fractures. Plug in your ZIP Code and a page or more of lawyers appears.

But critics say WhoCanISue and other online referral services degrade the legal profession and often steer the public to lawyers who operate under a business model of "bring in as many cases as you can and settle them."

Others, including those who advertise there, say it's just another way to attract clients.

"I'm getting probably twice as many phone calls," said Martin Saenz, a Miami labor and employment lawyer who has been advertising on the site for just more than a month. "Of course, not all of them have a case. A lot of time is spent going through cases, but I get clients. Old-school lawyers have to keep up with technology."

Mitch Polay, a Fort Lauderdale personal injury and criminal attorney, says colleagues recommended the site, and in the month he's been using it, his phone hasn't stopped ringing.

"The name was catchy," Polay said. "I was upset I didn't think of it."

But other lawyers object to the concept.

WhoCanISue's tactics are "egregious" and "directly appealing to people who want to be litigious, to seek out a claim," said West Palm Beach personal injury attorney Gary Lesser, managing partner of a law firm started by his grandfather.

"There are real people who are hurt, who need lawyers," he said. "WhoCanISue.com is part of an emerging trend. They are not a law firm, but a referral agency."

Lesser is vice chairman of the Florida Bar's advertising committee, which governs lawyer advertising by reviewing and monitoring ads. Lawyers are supposed to submit their ads in advance, Lesser said, but with 87,000 bar members it's impossible to know how many lawyers are not doing so.

Complicating matters is that the bar only regulates lawyers, not referral services such as WhoCanISue.com. If a lawyer who advertises on it breaks a bar rule -- for instance, promising a client a specific outcome such as a monetary judgment -- he or she can be fined, reprimanded or even suspended.

WhoCanISue was launched in October 2008 by Curtis Wolfe, 46, a former in-house counsel at a large Miami firm. He's well aware that his site's name might offend.

"It's definitely meant to be edgy," he said. "We wanted to provoke people. Most lawyer advertising is unremarkable and not memorable. I would sit at home and see these ads asking if you're injured, blah, blah, blah. There was no branding involved. We have a brand."

WhoCanISue.com also advertises in other states, including California.

"At this rate we are projecting to do $10 million-plus in 2010," President Vincent Celentano said.

Celentano helped finance the multimillion-dollar start-up, which includes irreverent television spots featuring buxom nurses and a pack of lawyers chasing an ambulance.

Injuries top the list of queries, followed by loan modifications and foreclosures and then employment issues.

Wolfe says the site makes it very clear: "WhoCanISue doesn't represent you. You're represented by whoever you hire as an attorney."

Lesser said he and many other lawyers are dismayed at the concept's appeal.

"We get together and say, it has come to this?"

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mdiaz@sunsentinel.com

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