If you’ve ever received a speeding ticket or other traffic citation, you probably know what is coming next: countless letters from attorneys stating that you recently were charged with a traffic offense and that you may need their help and representation in getting the matter sorted out in court. As the week goes by, more letters flood your mailbox, many with identical legal language. If you’re wondering how the previously unknown lawyers received your traffic citation information and address, you’re not alone. The same thing happened to me several years ago.
For many years, various consumer protection groups, bar associations, legal trade groups, and legislators in New Jersey have tried to stop lawyers’ solicitation of prospective clients. Consumer groups typically declare the practice to be an invasion of consumers’ privacy whereas some lawyers’ groups have argued that the solicitation letters are misleading and that the solicitation of clients by mail gives the legal profession a bad reputation. Some in favor of the practice argue that not everyone knows an attorney and that the mail solicitation process helps victims and defendants who otherwise would not know where to turn when something bad happens. Others have argued that there is no rule to limit an insurance company from calling up someone who has been in an accident. Some would argue that the victim would be in a better position if he had legal counsel during that phone call with the insurance company. Others in favor of the practice have maintained that it is not an invasion of privacy for attorneys to solicit clients by mail because the information is derived from records that are public and completely available to anyone who wants to look at them.
Regardless of your particular stance on the issue, there are strong arguments on both sides, and this may be why New Jersey courts consistently have rejected many attempts to curb the mail solicitation practice. The courts traditionally have ruled that attorneys have the right to solicit clients by mail. Some courts have ruled that the constitutional right to freedom of speech protects lawyers’ ability to solicit clients by mail. New Jersey law prohibits attorneys from soliciting clients in person or over the telephone; however, the laws allow attorneys to solicit clients by mail. Currently, lawyers are able to gain access to New Jersey police records via a state-run electronic database or by going to the courthouse and examining the physical records and files.
The challenges to the mail solicitation practice have gained traction in the last few years, and New Jersey legislators are now considering bills that would place new limits on an attorney’s ability to solicit prospective clients through the mail. A prospective bill would force lawyers to wait 30 days before contacting a defendant or an accident victim whose information they may have discovered by searching public records. We’ll have to wait and see what the legislators decide to do. It will be interesting to see whether the new laws will withstand legal challenge.