With Florida's approximately 85,000 licensed lawyers swarming every beat from criminal defense to corporate law, real estate to probate and entertainment to maritime, it's hard to imagine an untapped vein in the market.
But Alan S. Levine and Raymond G. Ferrero III say they've found just that: an under-represented legal specialty.
The Broward County-based attorneys, who incorporated Addiction Recovery Legal Services LLC in March, plan to build their new practice in this niche: helping families file the Marchman Act, a Florida state law that can be used to force adults or juveniles impaired by drug or alcohol addiction into hospitalization and treatment.
Levine and Ferrero, both former private contractors for the Broward County Public Defenders office, say their Fort Lauderdale firm is the only one specializing in Marchman Act law in South Florida.
Right now the practice, which has handled 12 Marchman cases so far, is focused on Broward. But if the business model is successful, Ferrero said they will expand to Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
''It is surprising how many people don't know it exists as a strategic solution,'' Ferrero said of the Marchman Act, which was enacted in Florida in 1993. ``Or they get frustrated after trying to pursue it on their own.''
Named for the Rev. Hal Marchman, an advocate of drug and alcohol treatment who is better known as the minister for the Daytona 500, the Marchman Act allows law enforcement to forcibly ''stabilize'' addicts whose impairment is determined to be a threat to themselves or others. If a judge agrees and orders treatment, the addict can be held in contempt of court and jailed if he or she does not comply.
The threat of jail can serve as a potent tool for getting someone into treatment, Levine said, especially if the respondent is a teenager or a young adult. ''We are putting teeth into the system,'' he said.
Dr. Ernest Cantley, president of the Stewart-Marchman Center in Daytona Beach, who worked with Marchman to draft the law, puts it a bit differently: ``What we tried to do in developing that [law] is make [treatment] services accessible in the community and still protect the rights of people being coerced into treatment.''
The intent of the Marchman Act was also to avoid red tape -- and legal expenses -- for the family, adds Deborah Zeoli, the center's development director. ''You don't need an attorney to file [a Marchman Act petition],'' she said. ''You just fill out the form and submit it to the clerk of courts.'' The county's clerk of courts is also where Marchman Act petitions can be obtained.
Without legal counsel, though, some family members don't follow through in getting the petition beyond the ''stabilization'' stage, said Keli Graybeal, a clinical social worker and community liaison for Fort Lauderdale Hospital often called upon to attend Marchman Act hearings. ``They have no idea how the process works; no one explains it them.''
Graybeal notes that while family members usually act as their own advocates in court, addicts have legal counsel -- usually provided by the local public defender's office.
That's how Levine and Ferrero originally got involved with the Marchman Act -- on the other side of the courtroom. They say they handled more than 10,000 drug- and alcohol-related cases during the 1990s for the Broward County Defenders Office. Their clients ranged from age 13 to their late 60s. Although Levine specialized in cases involving the Baker Act, a similar premise used to commit individuals whose mental state is deemed a threat to their own safety or that of others, he and his partner sometimes saw as many as 15 to 20 Marchman Act cases a week, they said.
''We sort of recognized a need,'' Levine said. That need, he said, was for an attorney to guide families and loved ones through the long, complex Marchman Act process.
''I've seen them work with families already,'' said Graybeal, who has known Ferrero and Levine through their mutual involvement in such cases. ``They make sure [the petitions] are done right.''
Levine and Ferrero said they have won all 12 of their Marchman Act cases. Victory does come at a price, though. Fees can total more than $3,500, depending on the complexity of the case.
''However, depending on a family's financial ability, we will work out an interest-free program,'' Levine and Ferrero said in an e-mail.
Although the law was designed so lawyers don't have to be involved, Cantley said that legal advice can definitely be helpful when trying to get someone help. ''I don't think that's a bad thing at all,'' he said. ''The reason I say that is that an awful lot of family members don't know how to get'' an addict into treatment.