LRIS Feature

Coping with the Recession: How LRIS Programs are Weathering the Economic Storm

Three years after the economic crash and the start of the Great Recession, economic instability still reigns.  For the middle and working class individuals who are the mainstay clientele of Lawyer Referral and Information Services nationwide, the economic downturn is reflected back to us daily in their calls and emails. The stories of hardship otherwise generalized in news reports as percentage points of unemployment, homes foreclosed upon, bankruptcies filed, jobs lost, businesses closed, and evictions carried out, are unmistakably made real in the unadulterated detail of someone’s personal life.  Along with the increased frequency of distressed and desperate callers has come an increased demand for empathy, patience and professionalism on the part of the LRIS referral counselor.

Compounding these pressures are the funding cuts to legal aid offices nationwide, with additional funding cuts possible in 2012.  As between a rock and a hard place, LRIS modest means programs are increasingly caught between assisting an ever-shrinking middle class and responding to an ever-growing underclass.

Meanwhile, meaningful access to the courts is crumbling across the United States. Effective, timely access to justice is impaired in over half of the states in the union because of budgetary cuts to the courts, hiring freezes, employee furloughs, lay-offs, pay freezes, and pay cuts.  The ABA’s Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System describes the effects of the budget cutbacks to the courts in an August 2011 report entitled, “Crisis in the Courts: Defining the Problem” which includes the breakdown of effects in the chart below:

EFFECTS OF BUDGET CUTS ON STATE COURTS

States delaying filling judicial vacancies

26

States freezing or reducing judicial or staff salaries

31

States furloughing staff

16

States furloughing judges

9

States laying off employees

14

States raising filing fees or fines

22

States curtailing hours or workdays

14

SOURCE:
ABA Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System. Figures cover the past two years.

Reductions in the number of hours that court facilities are open, drastic staffing cuts, mounting backlogs and delays will place increased financial pressures on attorneys who cannot resolve cases quickly, and by extension, LRIS programs will experience delays in collecting percentage fee revenue from these cases.

The conflating factors of the recession, fewer free legal service programs, and court cut backs and delays are mounting pressure on LRIS programs. The question becomes: How much can Lawyer Referral programs absorb while balancing their core public service mission with revenue generation?  And how do LRIS programs avoid the perception of being a low-bono program?

I sought out information from 6 other notable LRIS programs to better understand the effect of the recession and how these programs are coping.  Those LRIS programs include: the Milwaukee Bar LRIS, Austin Bar LRIS, Brooklyn Bar LRIS, Philadelphia Bar LRIS, Oregon State Bar LRIS and the New York City Bar LRIS.  As a general trend since 2008, calls are either steady or down, referrals have greatly decreased and modest means referrals have wildly increased.  In response, some are emphasizing outreach as broadly and as attractively as they can do it; others are exploring the use and improvement of their modest means programs; and lastly, one program offers tips for “best practices” in these trying times. 

Milwaukee LRIS Director Britt Wegner reports they have just decided to completely re-do their website “with new software to both look more professional and enable web users to automatically get a referral on their own,” as opposed to calling.  “If we are going to continue to refer our panel attorneys to people who are able to pay private attorney fees, we have to look the part and be as ‘user-friendly’ as possible.”

Similarly, Austin LRIS Director Jeannie Rollo explains: “We have recorded new radio messages and shot new television ads to update the look and hopefully attract new legal consumers. We are also increasing our grassroots outreach by participating in community events and finding more distribution centers for our brochures, bookmarks, and bags.”

At the San Francisco LRIS, our coping strategy has been two-fold: 1) Personalize the LRIS experience for the legal consumer as much as possible by being as visible as possible to the community and in the community, and; 2) Enhance outreach. In the past year, we have collaborated with city offices, city council members, small business merchant associations, the San Francisco Unified School District, Veteran’s groups, minority groups and community organizations to present at resource fairs, workshops, and clinics. We have also developed panel specialty areas such as ADA Compliance for Small Business and our newly launched Military Assistance Program. Soon we will initiate “LRIS Law and Learn” educational clinics, where intake for prospective clients will occur after a panel lawyer presents an overview of a specific area of law.

We are enhancing the search engine optimization of our website and its content – adding an LRIS program video, podcasts in multiple languages, Spanish television clips, articles, success stories, and ‘live chat’ capability with website visitors -- to increase traffic to our website while continuing to personalize the experience of our program.

Others like LRIS programs at the Oregon State Bar and Philadelphia Bar Association are exploring the effects on their modest means programs. Oregon State Bar LRIS Administrator George Wolff explains:

“From 2007 to 2011 we have seen a 64% increase in Criminal Law referrals, an 84% increase in Family Law referrals, and a 191% increase in Real Property (Landlord-Tenant and Foreclosure) referrals. We also have seen a decrease in calls of about 8% when comparing our 2009 and 2010 Program Years. And, it appears that we are on track for another 1% drop from that for 2011.

It would appear that some folks are self-censuring their impulse to call or receive a referral when they know that they have no funds to pay for a lawyer. And, although we have no statistics on this, our general experience is that those that do call have less ability to pay for a lawyer as compared to years past.”

Brooklyn Bar Association LRIS Director Roseann Hiebert reported: “[While] the number of referrals is down 10%, the number of calls referred to pro bono services is up by the same percentage. Bankruptcy calls jumped 32% from 2008-2010, then jumped an additional 24% from June 2010 to May 2011. Foreclosure defense referrals jumped 107% during those same time frames. But, calls have remained steady at 18,000 per year.”

After realizing the increased demands being placed on their Modest Mean Program, Philadelphia LRIS Director Charlie Klitch revamped it entirely with the goal to “streamline the intake process, improve the quality and accuracy of referrals, manage the expectations of potential clients and serve a broader segment of the community.” To do so, he increased the income eligibility guidelines from 200% to 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, and improved the screening process by developing a separate form for each of the 20 practice fields covered by the Modest Means Program.  As a result, the detailed descriptions have brought greater clarity to both the intake worker and the client about what services will be provided by the attorney, thereby improving the overall attorney-client relationship.

In closing, Association of the Bar of New York City LRIS Executive Director Allen Charne offered the following “best practices” tips for LRIS programs to manage clients and maximize referrals in these trying times:

1. Be honest with the callers. If you cannot help them, tell them so. Say it gently, even apologetically, but become available for calls that are potential referrals.

2. Make sure that your staff knows what legal services are available, and what their hours are, so calls can be referred elsewhere when appropriate.

3. Meet with panel members and explore setting up Unbundled Legal Service panels, particularly for matrimonial/family law, consumer, and other civil matters involving less than $40,000, or whatever amount your panel members suggest is appropriate for your community.

4. Discuss with panel members whether they are willing to consider alternatives to hourly billing.

5. During non-business hours or when there is no staff available to answer phones, have a message directing callers to your internet referral site and/or to leave a voice mail message.

6. Send letters/emails to clients with closed matters suggesting that if they were pleased with your service to let family, co-workers and friends know about you. If they have suggestions on how to improve ask them to write or email you.

7. Avoid drastic, short-sighted, cost-cutting reactions, such as layoffs or switching to automated-only referral systems. One of the biggest advantages that we have is an interested staff willing to listen to callers and help direct them to an appropriate lawyer. Even internet referral systems provide the best service when knowledgeable staff triages and directs the referrals.

Carole Conn is LRIS Director of Public Service Programs at the Bar Association of San Francisco.