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LRS: Ensuring Competent Representation

Feb 2000

The legal needs of individuals and families living at or below the poverty line are enormous and compelling, and the legal resources available to meet those needs are woefully inadequate by any measure. I have focused on this intolerable discrepancy between needs and resources in prior columns (December 1999; September 1998). At the other extreme are business organizations and individuals who have regular counsel and, therefore, know whom to call when legal issues arise.

But what of the great many individuals and small businesses between these extremes who also have legal needs that must be satisfied? Their resources, and consequent ability to pay legal fees, may be modest, or they may be substantial. What they have in common is a need for a reliable resource that will help them find a lawyer with skills and experience commensurate with their problems. The Legal Referral Service ("LRS" as we commonly call it), sponsored jointly by this Association and the New York Country Lawyers' Association, performs that role to a greater extent and more capably than is generally recognized. Indeed, I would be willing to wager that a majority of the readers of this column know (or know of) someone whom LRS could help to find a competent lawyer.

The creation of a joint legal referral service was approved by our Executive Committee on December 5, 1945 and by the Association members at a Stated Meeting six days later. A joint committee of the two associations was created to implement and oversee the service. LRS has grown dramatically over the years: in the six months from January to July 1947 nearly 900 clients were referred to attorneys; on average that number is now referred in little over a week. How does LRS handle this volume of requests?

A Rigorous Selection Process

LRS has assembled a panel of more than 600 attorneys, divided into 22 major practice areas and 149 subspecialties. (Some areas are still further refined according to the complexity of the matter and the required level of experience.) They run the gamut from the expected, such as landlord-tenant, matrimonial and employment law, to such highly specialized areas as RICO and ERISA. The panel members are chosen through a rigorous selection process. They submit a written application that must contain detailed information regarding three separate matters in each area of the law for which they are applying. Applications are reviewed by staff, and roughly 20% are sent back for further information. When the written application process is complete, applicants are interviewed by a three-member panel consisting of a staff member (frequently the longtime Executive Director, Allan Charne), a member of the LRS Joint Committee (now chaired by Judge Steven Barrett) and an experienced member of the LRS panel for that area of law. The interviews are rigorous as the written application; roughly 30% of first-time panel applicants are turned down. Each panel member must submit a renewal application each year, and each panel member must maintain professional liability insurance. This selection process produces a cadre of highly skilled attorneys, including two former Presidents of the New York State Bar Association and many lawyers capable of handling complex matters who serve as CLE instructors in New York City and throughout the country.

The LRS staff of 10 lawyers handles about 120,000 phone calls a year, or between 400 and 600 calls a day. Many calls are referred to social service agencies or handled by giving the caller basic legal information sufficient to satisfy the request for help. After this winnowing, approximately 30%, or more than 30,000 callers, are referred to a lawyer on the relevant panel. The lawyer provides a one-half hour consultation for a fee of $25, which is remitted to LRS to defray operating costs. If further services are required, the lawyer and client negotiate the terms of the retainer. The Rules for Panel Membership require that the fees to be charged be "discussed and clearly understood" by the client. A written retainer agreement is recommended in all instances and required if the prospective fee is more than $1,000. A violation of this or any of the other Rules of Panel Membership may cause removal of an attorney from the panel or a restriction on participation.

The work of LRS is not done when a client has been referred to a panel member. Follow-up forms are regularly mailed to clients seeking their assessment of the quality of the representation they are receiving. Complaints are reviewed by LRS staff and, if warranted, investigated by a subcommittee to determine whether any remedial action is appropriate. Client comments, both positive and negative, about the quality of representation they have received are placed in the panel member's file. In the event of a fee dispute, panel members agree to mandatory fee arbitration if the client so requests.

A Model Referral Program

Under the exemplary leadership of Al Charne, LRS has become a model referral program, showcased to other state and local bar associations and widely praised. An ABA-sponsored peer review of LRS some years ago concluded that it is "one of the strongest and most sophisticated LRS's in the country ... providing an impressive array of services with a clear public focus." Yet even with the massive volume of requests currently handled and the varied expertise of its panels, LRS could do more. In a city with such a vast number of skilled lawyers, there should be no area of the law in which LRS does not have an adequate number of attorneys for referrals. Moreover, a bar association like ours that bears the name of a city should serve its entire population, yet LRS has relatively few panel members from boroughs other than Manhattan. We would welcome many more. Finally, we must communicate to the public more widely the availability and the scope of services LRS panel members provide and must explore the use of information technology both to attract clients and to make referrals.

As a partner in a large law firm and former managing partner of the firm's litigation group, I have frequently been asked over the years to recommend a lawyer for a matter that our firm, for one reason or another, could not take on. At times in the past, I have been at a loss to make an appropriate referral. Happily, that is no longer true. I now refer colleagues and clients to LRS with complete confidence that they will be competently represented. I warmly encourage you to do the same.

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