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Vol. 46, No. 5

Up, down, and different: Bars see fluctuations in lawyer referral services during COVID

By Dan Kittay

The ongoing COVID pandemic has disrupted many facets of bar organizations’ lives. Bars have had to adapt to dealing with remote work, restrictions on in-person contact, and questions of how to deliver their services to members and the public.

Not the least of their concerns, for many bars, is the impact of the pandemic on their lawyer referral and information services (sometimes called lawyer referral services), which for many bars are a significant source of nondues revenue. How has COVID affected this important bar service?

While most bars interviewed for this article had an initial drop-off in calls starting in March 2020, the path since then has varied.

Michigan: ‘400 voicemails overnight’

For the State Bar of Michigan, the initial effect of the state's shutdown in March was a quiet period for LRS calls, according to Laurin' C. Roberts Thomas, the bar’s public services counsel.

That changed in July, as things started to open up. "One of the things we had always prided ourselves on was that we would return all of our calls in a single day,” Thomas says. “There was a period in July where we were getting 400 voicemails overnight."

At the top of the list of concerns for callers were unemployment questions and landlord-tenant issues. "Everything just skyrocketed for about a month solid," Thomas recalls.

The team of five staff members did the best they could to cope with call levels that were higher than they'd ever been pre-pandemic. Complicating things was something that other bars found in the contacts they received during the pandemic: Many calls were not from people who necessarily needed a lawyer.

"A lot of these people were calling because they were just frustrated and didn't know where to turn,” Thomas says, adding that “'Nobody's answering the phone at unemployment,'" was a typical complaint that staff members received. Referring them to an attorney would not have helped them, she noted.

There were also questions about whether employers could force employees to wear masks, how to get COVID tests, and other issues that staff were not able to answer or provide an attorney for.

The bar set up two hotlines related to the pandemic: One offered estate planning assistance to frontline responders, and the other was for those cases where staff believed a quick response was needed. Lawyers who worked with this hotline responded within four hours.

Since the July surge, call numbers have been steadier, Thomas says; call volume now is still higher than it was pre-pandemic.

New York City: Online requests fluctuate, too

The New York City Bar also went through a drop-off in cases around the time things shut down in March 2020, says George Wolff, executive director of the bar's lawyer referral service. Call volume "went off a cliff" when New York City went into its "pause" phase, he says.

The number of calls in February 2020 was 7,355, according to Wolff. In March, the number dropped to 5,349, and in April it reached 2,721, the lowest monthly total of the year. Since then, the number has climbed, although it is still below pre-pandemic levels.

The number of online requests for lawyers has also fluctuated, dropping to a low of 549 in March 2020. Online requests hit a high of 1,082 in July and have since fallen to levels below pre-pandemic figures.

As with other bars, some of the areas of law that callers were interested in became more popular as the pandemic restrictions wore on. Landlord-tenant, probate, unemployment, and family law issues had higher numbers than before the pandemic.

New York state had an eviction moratorium that was extended several times. Wolff notes that as the deadline for the moratorium would draw near, more calls came from tenants seeking information. When the moratorium would get extended, more calls came from landlords.

San Francisco: Increased familiarity drives online requests

While the Bar Association of San Francisco offers phone service as well as an online LRIS request form, there has been an increase in the number of online requests, says Carole Conn, the bar’s director of public service programs.

"The pandemic has catapulted the familiarity of online use" in general, Conn says, and this has led to a greater use of online resources by those seeking legal help.

In addition to its regular-fee LRIS program, BASF has a reduced-fee version for those on limited incomes. The bar has seen an increase in the use of its reduced-fee program in areas such as unemployment, divorce, and "areas of basic need," Conn notes.

Monroe County (N.Y.): A drop in panelists

The Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association also saw a decline in contacts during COVID, but phone calls were not affected. That's because the bar has switched to an all-online system, on a platform built by

The number of requests for help, the amount of referral fees, and the number of lawyers on the bar's LRS panel all dropped in 2020, says Debbie Ryan, LRS coordinator. "We lost one-third of the attorneys who had been active in 2019," she says.

As with the other bars, those numbers are "starting to turn back around" this year, Ryan notes.

Contra Costa County (Calif.): Big disruption in revenue

Most bar LRS programs generate some income for the bars, whether from signup fees, fees for referrals, or a percentage of the fee the lawyer ultimately receives from the client. For some, it's a significant part of their budget.

"We get close to one third of our income" from LRS fees, says Theresa Hurley, executive director of the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Bar Association. When call volume dropped in spring 2020, "we redid our budget, and did estimates of what we thought would happen with our LRS income."

While there was a decrease in income, it was not as much as the bar had feared. The experience has also caused the bar to think about how to diversify its revenue sources, so it has "more legs on the ground" to handle disruptions to any one area, Hurley says.

ABA standing committee offers nationwide perspective

The fluctuations in call numbers that these bars saw in March 2020 and beyond tracks generally with what other bars around the country have seen, says Briana Morris, senior counsel for the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility; Morris also staffs the ABA Standing Committee on Lawyer Referral and Information Service.

"In the beginning, most of the numbers were down," Morris says. She attributes some of that drop to bars having to make the transition from in-house staff to remote work, and also to courthouses in many parts of the country closing.

Since then, she says, an increase in calls "has depended more or less on whether the courts are open and there are cases going forward."

As things open up, the ABA Standing Committee on Lawyer Referral and Information Service has been talking about areas of law that might receive the biggest focus from callers to referral services, says Committee Chair David Keyko.

"We are anticipating a significant need for landlord-tenant assistance," says Keyko, adding that the amount of need will depend on the effectiveness of federal programs designed to help tenants, as well as any moratoriums that are in place (as New York City experienced).

Other areas expected to see high call volumes include bankruptcy, consumer issues, family law and unemployment.

Lawyer referral services, and their bars, may continue to see an economic impact from the pandemic in the coming years, Keyko says—and not just because of fluctuations in the number of calls or inquiries. As cases have been delayed, any income that would have been generated from a percentage of a fee is also delayed, he explains. In some cases, lawyers who don't want to wait for jury trials to resume may take a "COVID discount" to settle, and the reduced settlement would also be reflected in the fees the bar receives.

Conversely, he said, if there is a surge in cases at some point when things reopen, a subsequent increase in fees could be generated.

In addition to the disruptions from the pandemic, LRS programs in general have faced other challenges in recent years, including from commercial online lawyer search services. Those interviewed say they are confident there is a place for LRS in the future, as long as they are meeting the needs of the public.

"It's a good time for lawyer referral," Morris believes. "It provides the overall services that people need. There has been a misconception in the past that lawyer referral attorneys are somehow 'discount lawyers.' The lawyers who participate are lawyers who are taking clients every day at full fare.

“They may sometimes charge modest means rates in order to help people, but these are the lawyers from the communities they are serving."