LRIS Services Help Rebalance Legal Information Asymmetry
One of the most frustrating problems facing bar associations and their lawyer referral services today is that of information asymmetry: when the expectations of clients are misaligned with services offered by the legal community. It may seem like an anachronistic problem in an age when much more information is available to everyone than ever before. However, key changes to legal advertising made years ago -- changes intended to benefit clients -- have contributed to the current problem and have been compounded by the current recession.
The 1976 Supreme Court case Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Consumer Council allowed pharmacists, for the first time, to post their prices for prescription drugs. The Court held that "both the individual consumer and society in general may have strong interests in the free flow of commercial information… The State is free to require whatever professional standards it wishes of its pharmacists, and may subsidize them or protect them from competition in other ways, but it may not do so by keeping the public in ignorance of the lawful terms that competing pharmacists are offering."
The following year, in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, the Court expanded this principle to allow lawyers to advertise their services for the first time. It was this decision that fundamentally changed the role of lawyer referral and information services for bar associations nationwide in two major ways: First, competition would reduce intake volume for lawyer referral programs because of the increase in exposure to direct lawyer advertising. However, it is the second effect that lawyer referral and information services (LRIS) are still finding difficulty in overcoming: lawyer advertising has fundamentally altered public expectations about the cost of legal services.
Legal Aid services, government programs, and other pro bono resources work hard to stretch increasingly limited resources to meet the needs of the lowest-income individuals, while unrestricted law firm marketing has allowed nearly everyone with a steady income to find private attorneys in their price range. Understandably, LRIS services have worked to fill the gap that remains between these two ends of the spectrum through the establishment of legal clinics, "modest means" panels, and unbundled legal services (similar to the "legal clinic" that was attempting to advertise rates in Bates). However, the ability of law firms to post prices has made this task much more difficult.
"…[O]ffering the same no-fee unless you win arrangement as any other firm in Milwaukee."This slogan runs in a television ad for a prominent Milwaukee P.I. firm, illustrating the potential confusion that can be created by lawyer advertising. Even though it is not the law firm's intention, when stating something like this the public can easily misconstrue it as a belief that all services offered by an attorney regardless of the case type is based on a payment system that only applies after the attorney is victorious. Rampant advertising of this nature -- especially during a recession -- has understandably caused the public to be very curious about "free" or "no-fee" legal services.
This increase in misunderstanding results in ever more inquiries to private firms and pro bono services alike, which neither can satisfy. As both have always done for clients with needs that they cannot meet, private firms and pro bono services refer these clients to bar associations. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- LRIS's are a member benefit. However, LRIS's are also still and always will be a public service. The goal is to help each caller according to his/her situation (both financial and legal) to the best of the LRIS's abilities. Many times a referral is not necessary and -- thanks to numerous community resources, free walk-in legal clinics, etc. -- there are options for these callers and hopefully their calls to the LRIS will not just result in another "run-around." In fact, the LRIS is in a great position to reify the LRIS brand and further underscore that it is the trusted source even if no viable referral results.
LRIS services may be receiving less revenue because they face stiff competition for higher income clients from private firms. LRIS's may also have the difficult task of using their reduced revenues to handle intake that may include a higher call volume of people that are unable to afford legal services. However, each referral to the LRIS from an outside organization or law firm strengthens the LRIS's brand as a trusted source – the LRIS is "the right call for the right attorney" and/or resource for the caller. Though it is a recession, and LRIS's cannot meet the needs of every caller, they can still be the go-to and trusted source; educate the public, demystify the advertising, and further establish that the LRIS should be the first call instead of the last, regardless of the economy.
Chief Justice Warren Burger stated in Bates: "Although the exact effect of those changes cannot now be known, I fear that they will be injurious to those whom the ban on legal advertising was designed to protect -- the members of the general public in need of legal services… Indeed, in the context of legal services, such incomplete information could be worse than no information at all. It could become a trap for the unwary." Even though the messages produced by advertising law firms may add confusion, the LRIS can work to reduce the confusion, provide complete information, and simultaneously strengthen its brand and place in the legal field. The LRIS will always continue to cultivate and work towards referring profitable calls, but can also help those that can't afford to retain an attorney but may still need some level of legal assistance.
Britt Wegner is director of Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Milwaukee Bar Association.