Helping Regular New Yorkers Find Screened and Qualified Lawyers – by John S. Kiernan
President’s Column, November 2017
Many of our city’s residents find themselves needing a lawyer but not knowing how to find a reliable one who has been vetted for relevant expertise. For more than 70 years, the New York City Bar Association has been addressing this need by matching regular New Yorkers with the screened and qualified lawyers they need through the Legal Referral Service (LRS). And for New Yorkers who cannot afford regular lawyer rates, LRS attorney referral counselors can determine whether the legal issue might be a good fit with other bar sponsored programs such as Monday Night Law, the Moderate Means Program, the Civil Court Project, and the Court Square Law Project.
The LRS, managed by Executive Director George Wolff, was originally co-sponsored by the New York County Lawyers’ Association and is the first and oldest component of a network of such services that now operates throughout New York State. The service starts with the City Bar’s screening, selection, and oversight of a panel now consisting of more than 400 lawyers with experience in more than 160 practice disciplines – from adoptions to zoning, and all the leases, slip and falls, and tax audits in between.
The City Bar’s process for vetting and monitoring participating lawyers is rigorous. LRS staff, committee members, and panel lawyers who practice in the same area of law as each applicant review writing samples and applications, and interview all applicants. On an ongoing basis, the LRS follows up on client satisfaction surveys and ensures panel lawyers are in good standing, have malpractice insurance coverage, and have no outstanding disciplinary complaints.
When potential clients contact the LRS, they will either speak with attorney referral counselors or have their online referral requests reviewed by a counselor. (Increasingly, referrals come through email or inquiries submitted through the website.) The attorney referral counselors learn about the nature of the problem, sometimes refer potential clients to written materials available on the LRS website (www.citybarlegalreferral.org), and other times provide the contact information for panel lawyers. There is no charge for speaking with attorney referral counselors or for referrals to panel lawyers.
LRS panel lawyers agree that they will not impose any charge for initial consultations with prospective clients relating to an injury from an accident or a faulty product, medical negligence, or a workers compensation or Social Security claim. For all other matters, panel lawyers agree to provide up to 30 minutes of an initial consultation for a fixed fee of $35 payable to LRS. The initial consultation can provide brief, helpful advice or lead to representation. Terms for representation are worked out between the client and the lawyer if the client decides to retain the panel lawyer, with the City Bar receiving a percentage of the lawyer’s fee as partial support for staffing and operating the public services provided by the LRS.
This service has been good for clients, for lawyers, and for the City Bar. The clients get steeply discounted initial consultations with appropriately experienced and knowledgeable practitioners and the comfort of knowing that the attorneys they meet have knowledge in the area of their need and have been vetted by the City Bar. The lawyers get connected with clients, sometimes ones with only modest problems but sometimes ones with major claims. (Over the past decade, LRS lawyers have generated over $130 million in legal fees, including fees from a $6.2 million verdict a few years ago and a $3 million post-mediation settlement a few months ago.) George points out that “legal referral services are a unique form of marketing. The lawyer pays after-the-fact on fees earned and collected from successful cases. Other forms of marketing – such as newspapers, mass media, and pay-per-click ads – require lawyers to pay marketing dollars in advance, which may or may not amount to any viable matters.” The City Bar benefits by providing this significant and valuable service to the public and this work opportunity to its participating lawyer members, and by receiving an agreed-upon portion of the lawyers’ fees. Two-thirds of the time LRS attorney referral counselors refer potential clients to helpful resources, programs, government agencies, and NGOs, and not to private lawyers.
Over the years, LRS’s website has become an increasingly useful knowledge base for the public on basic legal issues, as LRS has posted materials relating to some of its most common topic areas, including bankruptcy, family law, immigration, landlord-tenant, personal injury, wills, and trusts and estates. In recent months, LRS has also increased its Spanish-language capacity and outreach, to the point that the Spanish version of its website now accounts for almost 10% of total website traffic. Overall, LRS web traffic accounts for more than 30% of all traffic on the City Bar’s website.
Understanding that lawyers are often asked for help on matters they can’t handle, LRS has just launched a new page exclusively for lawyers which makes referrals easier and more effective than ever. When a lawyer hears from a client, former client, friend, or acquaintance who needs a lawyer, she has the option to remain involved and keep an eye on the process. This is accomplished by a short form that provides the option to either “Send referrals to my client” or “Send referrals to me.” This gives the referring lawyer the option to speak with the LRS panel lawyer first on behalf of her contact. Lawyers seeking referrals can visit the web page at www.nycbar.org/lrsforlawyers or call 212.626.7373.
As an alternative to a full representation of clients of moderate means, the City Bar has been offering its Monday Night Law (MNL) program for 27 years to New Yorkers who want brief-advice legal assistance without any cost at all. Under the management of longtime volunteer organizer Russ Bleemer, MNL takes over a slice of our building almost every Monday night to provide visiting clients an opportunity to consult with volunteer lawyers in one of six disciplines: employment; divorce/matrimonial/family; bankruptcy; consumer; landlord-tenant; and small business. Often, these clients need to be directed to (or need help filling out) necessary forms, need assistance in understanding or preparing correspondence, or need coaching and advice on how to handle other formal communications. Thousands of individual clients’ problems get solved without charge every year through this anchor of our institutional commitment to these moderate means clients. Another win-win arrangement, this program provides volunteers with a discrete and manageable pro bono opportunity along with free training and CLE credit. Members of the public call the LRS (212-626-7373; en Español: 212-626-7374) to speak with attorney referral counselors who determine whether MNL would be a good fit for the legal issue and also schedule the appointments. MNL appointments are scheduled between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in 30-minute time slots.
While the Civil Court and Moderate Means programs sit between the full representations afforded by LRS and the brief-advice clinical support provided by MNL, they are also tailored to those who cannot afford regular lawyer rates. The Civil Court Project provides representation at reduced rates, by qualified and screened lawyers, when individuals and small businesses face disputes in Civil Court in which the amounts in controversy range between $7,000 and $25,000. The Moderate Means Program offers similar arrangements for uncontested divorces, simple personal bankruptcies, and small business advice, once again providing experienced lawyers who are willing to adapt to the scale of the dispute and accept reduced retainer deposits and payment plans.
In the wake of the financial crisis, the City Bar has been experimenting in conjunction with CUNY Law School in establishment of a moderate means law firm incubator, known as the Court Square Law Project. The Project, which was created with the support of a number of major New York law firms, trains attorney fellows to develop the skills to succeed as stand-alone lawyers representing clients of moderate means, while providing low-cost services to clients.
Collectively, these programs make a difference for New Yorkers who need screened and qualified legal help – and affordable, cost-effective help – while also building opportunities for lawyers to serve clients they might not otherwise find.
John S. Kiernan is President of the New York City Bar Association.