Whether or not ambulance chasing is illegal in your state, the American Bar Association says it’s always unethical
Ambulance chasing is when lawyers (or people hired by lawyers) seek out victims of accidents and prey upon their vulnerabilities in order to secure their business. This is unethical and sometimes illegal. Here's how to avoid these attorneys and find the one who's right for your case.
Remember the movie My Cousin Vinny?
The 1992 film starring Danny DeVito as an "ambulance chasing" lawyer is an example of how some attorneys are always looking for the opportunity to find a new client.
"Ambulance chasing" is what makes lawyers the butt of lots of jokes about being opportunists and wanting to cash in on other people's misfortunes. While there are attorneys out there who engage in this practice, the vast majority of lawyers do not.
How do lawyers "find" accident victims?
There are several tactics and techniques unethical attorneys use to locate potential clients.
For example, there might be a person who pretends to be "just" a witness but actually reports back to the lawyer.
Lawyers might also look for news stories about accidents and search for the victims by seeking out victims in the hospital or calling them at home shortly after they are released from the hospital.
Or sometimes, it might not be an actual lawyer who searches for a potential client — sometimes attorneys hire "runners" or "investigators" who are paid by the attorneys for bringing them leads.
What's tricky is that sometimes these are people who are likely to be "in the know" when an accident happens, such as first responders, police officers, hospital employees, insurance adjusters, tow truck drivers, and others who work with individuals after an accident.
There are 2 ways this could happen:
- The runner might convince the victim to hire a particular lawyer, or
- They might provide the lawyer with the injured person's contact information.
Sometimes this is accomplished because the lawyer or their runner will follow police scanners and access police reports, which are public information. The police report will provide your address and phone number, and this is one way they reach out to you after an accident.
How do you know if you're being chased?
You might not see a lawyer literally running down the street after your ambulance, but you can be "chased" in ways that are not so literal.
If someone who you don't know visits you in the hospital (who isn't hospital staff), or if someone offers you transportation or money, you're likely being targeted by an ambulance chaser.
If you're at home and someone you don't know calls and knows that you were in an accident, hang up. Some ambulance chasers or their representatives (runners) will spend time in hospital lobbies looking for victims or family members, or they might call you using the number listed in the police report.
If someone approaches or calls you to talk about your accident, either hang up or ask them to leave.
Is ambulance chasing helpful or hurtful?
It might seem as though having a lawyer seek you out to take your case would ease the burden of you having to be proactive in finding representation — particularly if you're injured and don't have the time or energy to do research into how to find an attorney on your own.
However, you're likely to be at your most vulnerable after an accident and the lawyers who engage in ambulance chasing are more likely to frighten or coerce you into choosing their services. Then, the lawyer often ends up being untrustworthy, dishonest, unprofessional, and ill-equipped to represent your interests properly.
The ethics and laws of ambulance chasing
The American Bar Association considers ambulance chasing to be unethical under Rule 7.3 of its Code of Professional Ethics. The practice is also illegal in many states.
These are the states where ambulance chasing is illegal, and where there are specific penalties:
|Penalties for ambulance chasing
|Class A misdemeanor (1 year in county jail)
|1 year in county jail or fine of up to $15,000
|Up to 3 years in jail or a $5,000 fine
|1 year in prison
|1st offense: 30 days in prison and $1,000 fine;
2nd offense: 10 years in prison and $100,000 fine
|Law license revoked
|Law license revoked
|1st offense: $30,000 fine;
2nd offense: 1 year in prison and $60,000 fine
|3 years in prison and/or a $6,000 fine
|1 year in prison
|$1,000 for each violation
|1-4 years in prison and a $5,000 fine
|$2,500 fine for each offense
|Civil penalties, restitution, cost of enforcement
What if I sign a retainer with an ambulance chaser and then change my mind?
In some states, a contract for attorney fees is void if the plaintiff was solicited by a lawyer who was ambulance chasing, under that state's definition. This includes being solicited by a person working for the lawyer.
How to find a qualified lawyer
So hopefully you now understand why you don't want to select the lawyer who comes to you to represent you in your legal claim.
But, if you're recovering from an accident or injury, dealing with the loss of a loved one, or caring for a family member who was injured, how can you find an ethical lawyer who will take your case?
Below are 4 steps that can help you find an experienced lawyer quickly. Remember, it could take some work, but it will be to your benefit in the long run to find a lawyer who's skilled and honest.
If the lawyer is good at their job, then they will be getting referrals from clients by word of mouth, from other lawyers, and from other types of professionals. It's expected that lawyers advertise by traditional means in order to get business, but a good lawyer shouldn't have to engage in shady dealings to get clients.
Use your resources to find a (good) lawyer:
1. Word of mouth
People you know can be one of your best resources for finding a good attorney. If you have friends, neighbors, family members, or coworkers who have used the services of a personal injury lawyer, ask them if they'd recommend the law firm.
The experiences of people in your personal network can provide insights into a lawyer's reputation, style, and ability to handle a lawsuit. A lawyer who's well-respected in the community — especially by other lawyers and judges — will likely have advantages within the court system and when negotiating settlements.
2. Social media networks
You can also use your online social networks—but be careful.
Anything you share online can later be introduced into your lawsuit. Even if you think you're only sharing with your friends, or if you later delete a post or photo, there are ways for investigators and insurance companies to uncover any online evidence that can be detrimental to your claim.
There's really no reason to go into detail about your accident in a social media post. You can ask for recommendations for lawyers using sites like Facebook or NextDoor, but you shouldn't disclose why you need one. If a friend asks why you're looking, you can share with them offline (only if you want to share, that is).
3. Online local networking apps
There are also ways to get recommendations from people in your community without asking directly.
Networking apps like Angi (formerly known as Angie's List) are designed to connect people with service providers in their local areas. You can search for the type of service, read reviews from other users, and see if the provider's specialties match your needs.
Still, be wary as these sites are supported by paid advertising. What looks like a recommendation could actually be a paid advertisement. These sites can be a good way to gather a list of lawyers in your area, but you still have to do your research.
You can also check with your local Chamber of Commerce for a listing of local lawyers.
4. Online legal directories
While a site like Nextdoor offers resources for all kinds of services — everything from landscaping to hair salons — you might want something more targeted in order to find an attorney.
A trusted and authoritative legal site like the Enjuris Law Firm Directory can effectively narrow your search by both geography and specialty. So, if you're looking for a lawyer for a car crash, motorcycle accident, premises liability claim, medical malpractice, birth injury, or any other tort law issue, you can quickly find someone who will have the right expertise to handle your claim.
There are also state legal directories that can be helpful for vetting your prospects. Your state bar association likely has a directory, too.
The State Bar website can also help you find low-cost assistance for some kinds of legal issues like family law matters and civil rights violations. If you need criminal defense and can't afford it, the court will appoint a public defender.
Finding your perfect fit
Finding a lawyer is like finding a doctor — you want mutual respect, trust, and loyalty. You need to be listened to and know that your lawyer will take you seriously and handle your case with the care it deserves.
Once you've found some options for lawyers, you're going to need to narrow your field by meeting with them to determine who seems like the best fit for you. Remember, while their credentials and track record are very important, personality counts, too.
Most personal injury lawyers offer a free consultation, where they decide if you have a case and you decide if you want to work with them.
Here are some free resources to help find the lawyer who's right for you and your legal claim:
- How to choose a personal injury lawyer: Questions to ask
- 3 tips for finding a qualified attorney for your personal injury case
- How to talk to a lawyer: Hiring an attorney after an accident
- Preparing to meet with a ersonal injury attorney