Everything You Wanted To Know About PAR Visits But Were Afraid To Ask
Brooklyn Bar Association LRS Director Roseann Hiebert and Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas Executive Director Jeannie Rollo wear many hats within the LRIS community. Both are double Cindy Raisch award–winning LRIS directors, both have been repeat presenters at Nuts and Bolts and other sessions at ABA National Lawyer Referral Workshop, and both have served as ABA Program of Assistance and Review (PAR) consultants. Roseann and Jeannie were kind enough to sit down with me, via conference call, to discuss the who, what, where, when, why and how of PAR visits.
George Wolff: What is a PAR visit and what does it cost?
Jeannie Rollo: The PAR visit is a review of the operations of a lawyer referral service at the request of a lawyer referral service or a bar association. It doesn't cost anything…except lunch. And we, the PAR consultants, talk to the bar association about best practices, its operations and what makes a lawyer referral service more accessible to the public.
GW: What do PAR consultants do to prepare for the PAR visit, and what do they do when they are there? What do they look for? Who do they talk to?
Roseann Hiebert: Questionnaires are sent to the bar association that we are going to visit ahead of time. We review their responses and see how they are doing with their program, taking into account that lawyer referral services can vary their practices greatly. We also confer with the other PAR consultants — we usually set up the teams as 2 or 3 consultants. When we visit the bar association we talk to everybody — we talk to the people answering the phones, we talk to the executive director — whoever is made available to us. We also talk to board members, which is usually our closing segment after we have reviewed the program. We want to get an overview of the program and make recommendations of how they can improve, based upon what their goals are. But, not everybody's goals are the same in having a PAR review; some want to get certification from the ABA, some just want to increase their collections, some want to increase the number of calls they are taking or referrals they are making…so it depends. It varies from bar to bar, based upon their goals and objectives, and what we observe.
GW: Who should be there to meet with the PAR consultants?
RH: Normally, the Lawyer Referral Director, the Bar Director, and the staff. Whoever they think is relevant to the conversation.
GW: Jeannie — What should an LRIS do in advance of a PAR visit to really get the most out of it?
JR: They should fill out the questionnaire as completely as possible, so that it can prepare the PAR consultants for the visit — so we know exactly what they are looking for and so we can zero in on what they need. Oftentimes, we discover other issues that they may be concerned about that they did not put on the questionnaire. Also, prior to the visit, the lead consultant will reach out to the contact person so that we can talk to them to see if there are other issues that they want to talk about…
RH: …that might not be put in writing.
RH: Sometimes, there are sensitive issues; maybe the executive director is on board but someone else involved with the decision–making process is not on board. A lot of the time one of the attorneys that goes to the PAR consultation is one of our past or present ABA LRIS Committee members. They kind of angle towards the individual or authority figure who might be somewhat resistant because, you know, some people just want to keep the status quo.
GW: What are some of the reasons for having a PAR visit? And, of those, which do you think are the most common hypothetical scenarios that LRIS's need help with?
JR: I think many of them are concerned with how to be profitable, and collecting the fees that are due to them; beefing up their infrastructure; and doing more outreach.
RH: Sometimes they want to implement percentage fees, so we give them a blueprint. There is a place that I have been to twice, and will probably make a third visit to, before they get it done…
JR: …and we do that in order to continually assist them in the process.
RH: Right. They are asking us to come back so that we can help them through the process. Some places are starting from scratch, sometimes they have to do it in baby steps — they do one part first and then we will go back and help them implement the second part.
GW: It sounds like it is sometimes appropriate to have multiple PAR visits. What is more common — single or multiple PAR visits?
JR: I think that multiple PAR visits may not be as common, but follow up is. I make myself available via phone or email and have many conversations with the folks who have received a PAR visit; either I check in with them or they call me and say: "I remember you said something about this. Can we talk about that again now that's it been three months after the PAR visit, so that you can refresh my memory on how we might go forward?" I think that kind of follow–up is more common than an actual second PAR visit.
RH: Yes, absolutely. We are always open to going back and discussing things with them but, like Jeannie said, most times you are not going back more than once — a lot of follow up is done on the phone. And, after the visit, we write a report which is sent back to the bar association with the overview of the whole visit, and our overall recommendation. We also debrief with the board or committee at the end of the visit, and then we formalize that in a written report.
GW: When is it the right time to have a PAR visit?
JR: I think the right time is when everyone is on board to make a change. It is often difficult for PAR consultants to visit a bar association that is resistant. When they are ready, we are ready.
RH: We don't know until the ABA gets the call that the bar association wants a PAR visit, and that's when the ABA decides what team they are going to send. The ABA picks consultants who are best matched for what the bar association wants to do with the program, and what type of bar association they are.
GW: When does it not make sense to have a PAR visit?
RH: I don't know that it ever does not make sense because even if you do not have everyone on board, it is always good to have your program reviewed. Even if they are not ready to make a major change, there might be small changes they can make to improve the referral service.
JR: There is a cost factor involved though. Since the ABA picks up the cost, there is probably an optimum time for resource management purposes. People can take advantage of the [e–mail] list serv[ice], too, and get some really great ideas that may improve [the program's] services without actually having a PAR visit — because it is expensive for the ABA to send PAR consultants.
GW: When would it be too late? Can you think of a hypothetical situation where a lawyer referral service requests a PAR visit, but they let something fester far too long?
JR: Yes. I think there is that possibility. There are instances where it's just not going to work. This kind of goes back to where I stated that maybe they may not be ripe for a PAR visit because they are not willing or able to make changes — whether it be political within the bar association or financial.
RH: Well, I can think of one that was public knowledge: A lawyer referral service waited so long to request a PAR visit that they almost went belly up, and then someone had to do an emergency PAR visit.
GW: Who can request a PAR visit?
JR: The director, bar executive or committee requests a visit — it originates with the bar association.
GW: If things are not going quite right at an LRIS, and I'm a board member who oversees an LRIS, am I aligned with the PAR consultant or is the PAR consultant always going to protect the LRIS director? Who is the PAR consultant's client?
RH: I don't think that we protect anybody. I think that we are there as a neutral, third–party to make an honest evaluation and give our recommendation for best practices to achieve whatever goals they are looking to achieve.
RH: We are never on anybody's side. We can't go in there aligned with anyone because then we will not have any credibility.
GW: It sounds like there might be a lot of emotion or potential for conflict, blame, power struggles. How do you as a PAR consultant ensure that you get a clear picture of what is going on? And, how do you manage that situation?
JR: We manage it carefully because we are trying not to get involved in any kind of politics. And, oftentimes, we walk into politics and don't know it before we get there. We just have to be careful not to align ourselves with anybody, to stay neutral, and just stay on task at addressing the referral service's needs and not the global bar association needs.
RH: We do not impose any decisions on them. They decide what they are going to do and not do for their referral service. We only provide best practices –– options and our honest neutral opinion.
JR: We are not really there to convince someone to do something. We just give them information and then we step away.
GW: Can you think of some hypothetical situations where strategies or proposed solutions had little financial impact but made a difference for the overall health of the organization?
JR: I do have an instance where it made an immediate effect: Shutting down a bar association directory. One bar association had a public directory up and their referral service was faltering. They followed the recommendation and it turned the referral service around. A year later the ABA got an email that said: "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! It has revived." So, that was an instance where it was a quick fix.
GW: Are there grassroots marketing efforts that seem underutilized?
JR: For LRIS's that do not have large marketing budgets and do not have large staff we talk to them about what they can do immediately and at low cost: reaching out to libraries, courthouses, local organizations. And, those things can be difficult if there is not enough staff. But, we also help them with pulling in committee members, using them to help with this if the LRIS is understaffed.
RH: When I started at the Kansas bar, I was the only person doing the referral service, and trying to do that…I couldn't follow–up. If you don't follow–up, you don't collect money. If you want to be successful you have to dedicate at least some of the time to that, even if it means closing down early to do it, to send out billing on a Friday afternoon. It may not be so optimal when you are so limited with your resources. You can be referring all the people in the world, but if you are not following up on those cases and then collecting the money it doesn't matter.
GW: What do you get out of being a PAR consultant?
JR: I just love lawyer referral services and I love the concept. I think it is a fabulous model and we have the opportunity to teach that model to other groups — I enjoy doing that.
RH: It gives you the opportunity to share the business of public service. And, you know, I came from a legal aid background, so when I first started lawyer referral the concept of money and helping people seemed to be contradictory. But, as I got more involved I realized that while, yes, they are paying for it if they were not coming to us who knows where they would be going. And, the more 'profitable' you can be the more you can help. Last year, I was able to give $15,000 to pro bono projects. I like the idea of helping people and helping the public get what they need to get to a good lawyer, to get to resources.
GW: How many PAR visits do you estimate each of you have done?
JR: Maybe 7?
RH: I think I've done 5.
GW: If you could waive a magic wand, how would you like to see the PAR program evolve, if at all?
JR: I think multiple day visits and maybe multiple day follow–up would help.
RH: Sometimes, you want to get a little bit more in–depth.
JR: It would help a lot to be able to sit in on operations longer.
If you would like more information about the PAR program and how it can help your LRS, please contact Jane Nosbisch or call 312/988–5754.
George D. Wolff is Manager of the Oregon State Bar Lawyer Referral and Information Service.