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."