The Long View: Discussing the Past and Future of Lawyer Referral Services with Sheldon Warren

The following is an interview with Sheldon J. Warren, immediate past Chair of the Standing Committee on Lawyer Referral and Information Service. Mr. Warren has deep roots in the LRIS community, has been a frequent speaker at LRIS National Workshops, and has devoted years of service to the Standing Committee (1990-1993, 1996-2002, 2008-2011 (Chair)). Mr. Warren is also a trial attorney with extensive trial experience.

George Wolff: How did you first learn of LRIS's generally? Was there a particular person who inspired or reached out to you?

Sheldon Warren: It was in January of 1981. I had just come down to Los Angeles and was looking for some sort of pro bono program to get involved in. The L.A. County Bar's LRIS had an in-house program where, every afternoon, they would have an attorney in the office meeting with potential clients. I went over there and talked to the directing attorney -- I knew nothing about lawyer referral at the time -- and I said: "Well, this sounds like an interesting program, and I'd get contact with real clients." I was with a large firm working for corporations, so I wasn't going to get that kind of interaction. So, I started going over once or twice a month. I did that for two and a half years, left the firm I was with and went travelling for 8 months, came back, rejoined the firm, and then went back over to start working with the lawyer referral service again. By this time it was early 1984, and Cindy Raisch was the Director. Cindy was certainly one of the most dynamic individuals I have ever met in my life. She just inspired a passion in everyone she came into contact with -- myself included -- for lawyer referral. She was just an amazing individual. She is the one who inspired me to take it up a notch.

Wolff: What did you think of LRIS's at that time? How has your view of LRIS's changed, if at all?

Warren: I think everybody at the time was making referrals out of a shoe box, with an index card, with the lawyer's name on it. My impression of lawyer referral was while they were run well they were not necessarily run as a business. I think the one difference is that the successful lawyer referral services now have adopted the mantra that the ABA Standing Committee adopted more than 20 years ago: they are in the business of public service. It doesn't diminish the public service focus of it by any means. Everything that Coke, Pepsi, Google and Apple do – you can take their model in many respects, with regard to how they have been successful – and transfer that over to lawyer referral. That is the biggest change that I have seen in lawyer referral in the three decades that I have been involved – that, and, obviously, the technological changes that have come with the computers and the internet.

Wolff: What is it that inspires you most about LRIS's and the LRIS community? Why have LRIS's remained such a focus and passion of yours?

Warren: No ego. Having practiced for as long as I have, one of the things that you encounter on a regular basis is lawyers who are absolutely certain that they are the best lawyers in the world. There is none of that in the lawyer referral service community. Second, the target market for lawyer referral is the middle income consumer. When I started practicing, the Bates decision was only 4 years old and attorney advertising was in its infancy. If somebody wanted to hire an attorney and they were in this vast middle income group they would go to the Yellow Pages. Hiring an attorney because of the photo in the yellow pages or their ad on TV, and now their ad on Google – without any mechanism to determine whether that individual actually knew anything about the area of your need – that's just not a good way to hire an attorney. When I started volunteering I thought: "Gee, these folks have subject matter panels." And, the interview counselor would steer them to an attorney who had objectively verifiable experience. There is no better way for folks to find attorneys. I believed that in 1981 and I believe that now. With the proliferation of the web and social media and all of that, it is so easy for consumers to be misled by attorneys with smart advertising agencies that really know how to take advantage of individuals that have a problem but really don't know: "What questions am I supposed to ask? What should I know about the attorney before I hire him/her?" Legitimate lawyer referral services meet that need and there is nothing like them out there. And, it is not a distinction of for profit or not for profit as to whether a lawyer referral service is legitimate, rather, do they have as their primary focus public service? That is the focus that the ABA Standing Committee had always had, and that I believe all legitimate lawyer referral services still have. That is why, after all this time, I feel just as passionate or more passionate than ever. There is no better model.

Wolff: As you look back over all of the years that you have been involved in the LRIS community, what do you think has been its biggest accomplishment? What was its biggest challenge?

Warren: I think the biggest accomplishment and the biggest challenge are related and ongoing. The biggest accomplishment was dealing with the proliferation of "scam" lawyer referral services – and that goes back to the mid-80's – when lawyer referral services were still listed at the front of the yellow pages, and smart "scamsters" realized that if they started the "ABC Lawyer Referral Service" they could be at the head of the yellow pages. And, the "ABC Lawyer Referral Service" was nothing other than a separate phone on the desk of the receptionist for whatever law firm was running this scam. The phone would ring and the receptionist would answer "ABC Lawyer Referral Service," and then refer those callers to the members of whatever firm was running the scam. It became so common that that was the genesis of the lawyer referral legislation that was adopted in California in 1987. And, that legislation was initiated, in part, to allow a certification process whereby the yellow pages and the public would know whether they were dealing with a scam or a real service. The greatest challenge that lawyer referral services have faced and continue to face is an extension of what I have just been talking about: The proliferation of services who market themselves as a referral service. Back in the 80's, if you wanted to buy a full-page ad in the yellow pages that could be a lot of money. Now, you can build a website for $99 and start advertising a so-called referral service overnight. I think it is a real challenge for public service oriented lawyer referral services to be able to distinguish themselves in the marketplace as being legitimate. I think referral services which satisfy the criteria of the ABA's Model Rules do just that. And, while I believe that the competitive marketplace that exists now is the lawyer referral service community's greatest challenge, by the same token, I think it is its greatest opportunity. That is the beauty of the web. The fact that you are a legitimate local or state bar-sponsored lawyer referral service is going to give you a great advantage.

Wolff: What do you think the biggest challenge is for the LRIS community in the coming years – if you had to pick one?

Warren: I don't think it's so much a market challenge – I think it is more an internal challenge to ensure that a bar's Board of Governors is educated as to the value of lawyer referral services. I have seen this in referral services that I have visited as part of the PAR [Program of Assistance and Review] program: A successful service, breaking even or generating some excess revenue, hits some hard times. All of a sudden there's a downturn in bar membership, a downturn in income at the bar, and the Board of Governors doesn't know anything about the lawyer referral service other than the fact that it now requires a subsidy from the bar. And, they say: "Why are we doing this? What service does this provide to the larger bar? Boy, we could save all this money if we just dump the lawyer referral service, so let's do that!" I think that lawyer referral services need to be ever vigilant and always working at educating the young lawyers and folks that are going to be the future presidents of their bar association. Get them involved, or at least make sure that they are aware what the lawyer referral service does for the bar association – that the lawyer referral service is in essence the face of the bar association to a vast majority of the general public, and how important that is; how a continuing investment in the lawyer referral service will pay off for the bar; that even though there may be years that it requires a small subsidy stick with it because of the service that it provides and the potential for the revenue it can generate. So, yes, the proliferation of services on the web is a real challenge, but I really think that lawyer referral services should stay focused on educating the folks in the bar as to what it is that they are doing and why what they are doing is important.

Wolff: If you could waive a magic wand, what is the one thing that you would like to see the LRIS community do or change about how they operate?

Warren: If I were to waive my wand it would be that referral services across the country would have an expanded implementation of subject matter panels. Many services have numerous subject matter panels, some have fewer – driven in part by the community, nature of the calls they receive and the like – but it is so important that a referral service establish the objectively verifiable criteria for attorneys to join a particular panel. The example I always use when we are out on PAR visits is: If you have a felony criminal panel, and you have no verifiable experience criteria for that panel, I would suggest that you are doing a serious disservice to a consumer if you make a referral to an attorney that was admitted the day before yesterday. That is not operating in the public interest. Again, that experience – the number of trials you want a person to have in order to satisfy the criteria – may well vary from community to community.

Wolff: What is the one thing that you hope the LRIS community never changes about how they operate?

Warren: The personal contact or personal investment of the LRS telephone counselors. Whether it is by telephone or online – always have an intake counselor available if they require additional assistance. That is something, I hope, that lawyer referral services never lose because it is that concern for the consumer that they get the right referral to the right lawyer that distinguishes a legitimate lawyer referral service.

Wolff: What does the future hold for you? You are never really saying, "Goodbye," right? Are we going to see you at the next [Lawyer Referral Workshop]?

Warren: The chances of not seeing me are probably nil and none. I was on a PAR visit as recently as Monday, and I felt as excited about doing that as I did when I made my first PAR visit in 1988. I am going to continue to attend the workshop on an annual basis. I have too many friends that I see there. I enjoy those workshops too much to take a pass now!

George D. Wolff is Manager of the Oregon State Bar Lawyer Referral and Information Service.