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Lawyers burn up the Ethics Hotline.

Recently-released record-breaking numbers for The Florida Bar Ethics Hotline reveal that nearly 30,000 calls were placed during the 2008-09 fiscal year, a number that comes as no surprise to Elizabeth Tarbert, the Bar's ethics counsel.

"When there's an increase in your client base, more calls come in," Tarbert said. "One reason for the increase is simple: we have more members."

The economic downturn may also play a part in the rise in numbers. Although questions about conflicts of interest have always been frequent, hotline staff members are now seeing a number of bankruptcy and foreclosure calls.

"I think the economy is the biggest trend right now," Tarbert said. "We're getting questions like, 'If I file for bankruptcy, will that affect my license? Could I lose my license?'"

Numbers for the ethics hotline have steadily increased since 2005, with the largest spike occurring in 2007-08 before another smaller increase this year. The toll-free question-and-answer service was established in 1985 as a resource for Bar members with questions about professional conduct and compliance with Bar rules. Hotline calls are answered by a nine-member attorney staff armed with ethics opinions and an index that includes cases and opinions from across the nation, and answers are often given immediately by ethics staff.

"Sometimes questions do require more research," Tarbert said. "But we'll call them back or ask them to write in if the issue is a complicated one."

Trends--like the recent influx in foreclosure and bankruptcy calls--do not go unnoticed by the Ethics Department. These calls frequently become formal Bar ethics opinions, like the 2000 opinion on advance funding in litigation cases, partly inspired by an influx of calls on the issue.

Ethics staff try to respond to most questions while on the phone with the caller. The more difficult, in-depth questions normally will be answered within 24 hours to provide Bar members with the quickest possible service. If a question is too difficult or unique to be answered within that time frame, Bar members can expect to be told so.

"We'll tell them when something is a gray area," Tarbert said, "And we'll give them the conservative advice. You can always tell how to stay out of trouble."

The hotline is a popular service, and lines stay busy. Tarbert says the best time to call is around lunch, but the key is to contact the department the moment an issue arises.

"Don't feel like you have to do a bunch of research before you pick up the phone. It's always better to ask than to go forth and act in ignorance," she said. "It is thanks to the dedication and hard work of the lawyers who staff the hotline that we are able to answer so many calls and give timely, knowledgeable advice."

A variety of ethics resources are also available online for lawyers with questions regarding professional conduct. Bar members can call the hotline at 1-800-235-8619 from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. EST. All calls are confidential. Links to ethics opinions and Florida Bar rules can be found online at www.floridabar.org.

Annie Butterworth Jones

Associate Editor
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Author:Jones, Annie Butterworth
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Feb 1, 2010
Words:519
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