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May 19, 2016 Dialogue

The Indispensible Asset of Building Strong Relationships

By Dana Rindahl

With the onslaught of legal services available online and information that is easily accessible for computer savvy legal customers, LRIS programs across the country are being challenged. What distinguishes an LRIS from the rest of the online directories and cheap, quick-answer services? Quite simply, the answer is relationships.

There is nothing new or innovative about building relationships. In fact, one could argue that it is the most tried and true manner of attracting and maintaining a loyal client base. Fortune 500 companies spend hundreds of dollars training staff to build these skills, and books on the topic routinely find themselves on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Your LRIS should be a key tool for your bar associations in strengthening their relationships with both the public and their member attorneys.


A Partner in the Client’s Solution

It is an unfortunate truth that a majority of the public distrust attorneys. Blame the lawyer jokes, media, or a culture of frivolous litigation, if you like. If you couple that exposure with the likelihood that the customer has never had a prior relationship with an attorney, it is no surprise that a sense of trust is not easily forthcoming. Make sure your LRIS is changing that perspective.

By ABA demand, LRIS programs must first and foremost be public services. This means that when a member of the public contacts a LRIS, the individual should not immediately be assigned a case value and pushed into an attorney’s office. In contrast, thanks to a wealth of nonprofits, robust government programs, and the availability of brief services, the Hennepin County (HCBA) LRIS refers only one in four contacts to an attorney. Instead, the individual is counseled to determine the most appropriate avenue of redress for their issue, income, and jurisdiction. When LRIS staff shows that they are knowledgeable about area resources and makes the individual feel as if they are not being pushed into an outcome that is the most financially advantageous to the service, trust is earned.  When a true legal matter arises in the future, that individual is likely to reach out to the LRIS again, knowing that the counselor listened to their needs and was committed to finding the most appropriate solution for the issue.

When a customer has a matter that should be addressed through legal representation, don’t make him or her feel as if your program merely doles out a name and number.  Great care should be taken to ensure that individuals can find an appointment with an attorney who works with their schedule, is conveniently located, is experienced in the case matter, and does not have a conflict of interest. Once an appropriate attorney is identified, be sure the person is told what documents to bring to the appointment and counseled on how to make the best use of the time. Instead of being seen as a part of a heavily obstacle-laden “system,” the referral counselor—and, by association, the bar—becomes a partner in the solution.

Not only is it important to build lasting relationships and trust with your customers—it is equally important for you to generate the same sort of relationship with your panel attorneys. Gone are the days when attorneys graduated law school, took the bar, and instantly joined the local bar association.  With the rising cost of membership, bars are forced to justify their membership fees and prove their value to attorneys. Your LRIS should be a program that clearly illustrates one of the more intrinsic benefits of bar membership:  relationships.

The HCBA’s LRIS sets up appointments for clients with their referred attorney. This process is time consuming and, without adequate coverage, can lead to longer than desired phone queues; however, the benefits reaped are worth any downside. LRIS counselors have daily contact with many of our attorneys. We contact them to offer new potential business, ask questions about the most appropriate disposition of a call, offer free CLEs, and sometimes ask for favors. While it is still necessary to hold them accountable for missing reports or late payments, the attorneys see us as a partner in their practice.  With this two-way partnership, the HCBA rarely needs to investigate attorneys for under-reporting their attorney fees or other concerns that can plague some referral services. 

In order to avoid being unresponsive to potential clients, encourage your LRIS attorney to notify referral counselors when they will be away from the office for extended periods of time. Consequently, the LRIS will be aware of when attorneys experience child birth, become first-time grandparents, become ill, are involved in weddings, go on vacations, receive promotions, change firms, or retire. Knowledge of these major life events allows us to celebrate in their personal and professional triumphs. Be sure to send them cards and make congratulatory calls; you may find yourself invited to join in the celebration.  Being part of these events solidifies a loyal relationship with the attorney that won’t be quickly dissolved if call volumes decrease.

The same principle can be applied when you notice significant outcomes on your panel attorney’s case status reports or when you receive positive responses from a client survey. Take a few short minutes to write a note that thanks them for their excellent work. Let them know that you’ve noticed their excellent service and are appreciative.

To be clear, it is essential that LRIS programs be innovative and responsive to our changing culture. But as you are putting on your creative hats and striving to implement new, tech-savvy programs, don’t forget to capitalize on the invaluable asset you already have at hand:  contact with the public and with attorneys. A personal touch will allow you to create a win-win solution for everyone involved.