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August 19, 2016 Dialogue

Growing a Small LRS Program: A Case Study of the New Haven LRS

By Kiernan Michau

When I joined the New Haven County Bar Association and took charge of its Lawyer Referral Service a few years ago, I had very little experience with the legal field. My background focused on communications and nonprofit management, so I was immediately intrigued by the unique challenge that all LRS staff face in operating a successful program:  as a fee-generating program operating on a nonprofit budget, how does LRS effectively serve both clients and attorneys, then communicate that service to the wider community? When a licensed attorney is a Google search away and large law firms have seemingly inexhaustible marketing budgets, finding the niche in which LRS can generate revenue while supporting the community has become more complicated than ever. Particularly for me, someone with no knowledge of the legal business, the problem felt daunting.

The first step I took in my approach was to attend the ABA Lawyer Referral Service Workshop where I was able to meet other LRS directors and share ideas. It was at the conference that I learned about the Program of Assistance and Review, or PAR, an invaluable resource offered for free to LRS programs by the ABA. A team of experienced LRS directors and participants reviewed our operational information, then came in person to discuss our program and suggest changes. These two resources, combined with thoughtful conversations shared on the LRS listserv, helped me to create a plan of action for our LRS.

To give you an idea of where we started, the NHCBA’s Lawyer Referral Service is a relatively small, but very active program. On average for the last couple of years, we have had between 55-60 panel attorneys, and we have fielded around 2,100 calls each year, resulting in about 700 referrals per year. We charge clients $35 for a referral, and we include up to three referrals total with that fee. Our panel attorneys pay an annual listing fee, with additional charges for experience panels, and we collect a 15% fee on the cases we refer them. Aside from the traditional LRS program, we also offer a Modest Means program, as well as a series of free 15-minute consultation clinics through our “Ask a Lawyer” program.

Since we were lucky enough to be starting with an active LRS program, the committee and I addressed what would come to be our main challenge:  sharing our program with the community. At the time, most of our clients were being referred to us either by other attorneys or legal and nonprofit organizations in the area. Word of mouth is a very effective tool in a dense community like New Haven, but as many LRS directors know, word of mouth should also be complemented by more proactive marketing strategies. Over the course of two years, the committee tried a few different strategies that seemed to tap into new wells of potential clients.

First, the committee took a closer look at the function of the “Ask a Lawyer” program. Formerly, if the attorney at the clinic recommended a client for a further referral after the free 15-minute consultation, the client would be eligible for a free LRS referral. After running statistics, we found that many of the “Ask a Lawyer” referrals did not lead to retained cases, often because the clients at the clinics could not afford an LRS attorney, or even a Modest Means attorney. To improve the retention rate of “Ask a Lawyer” referrals, the committee voted to add a $15 fee to those referrals. Attendance at the clinic was still free, and attorneys could still recommend clients for further referrals, but the client would have to pay the $15 fee (reduced from the $35) to get the referral. We found that this change still allowed us to provide legal support to the community while improving the quality of the referrals that were fed into the LRS program.

Next, the committee tried three new marketing campaigns. First, we worked out a deal with our local NPR station so that the 15-second ad that played whenever a listener opened their online streaming station was an LRS ad. This campaign ran for four months and coincided with a second campaign arranged in conjunction with New Haven city buses. For a generously discounted nonprofit rate, we had an LRS banner on the tail end of two city buses. To maximize our budget, the city agreed to spread out the campaigns, rotating our banners on and off in periods over the course of six months. Finally, the committee devoted the last of its marketing budget to a good old-fashioned mailing. We made the mailing as comprehensive as possible, but tried to focus on community-based businesses around the city that have a wide network of clients of their own:  schools, banks, real estate agents, government agencies, and hospitals. We gathered the list guided by the question:  If I didn’t know about LRS, what professional in my daily life would I ask for a referral? By coordinating these three campaigns, we were able to combine breadth of exposure with a focus on quality demographics.

Finally, our last strategy—and possibly our most effective—was to make ourselves more visible through community involvement. We began booking space at city fairs and events, most of which we were able to get for free as a nonprofit organization. An LRS committee member would join me in tabling at these events to meet potential clients and, on occasion, give out informal legal advice, similar to our “Ask a Lawyer” clinic format. We also held our first Legal Information Fair on the Green in June, which was essentially an amplified “Ask a Lawyer” clinic held outdoors and heavily marketed in the local media. These programs worked to connect the attorneys and the clients more closely, and we received overwhelming positive feedback from participants on all sides.

Ultimately, effective marketing comes down to the resources you are able to put into it. Since our LRS program was operating on a shoestring budget, we found that our best resources were our creativity and our people. Offering free or reduced free legal services has allowed us to connect with clients and support our community. In turn, we were able to use our reputation of service to receive discounted marketing opportunities. The combination of these efforts has raised our visibility in the community, which has helped our program to grow steadily over the last few years.

Kiernan Michau

Former LRS Program Coordinator

At the time of the writing of this article, Kiernan Michau was the Program Coordinator for the Lawyer Referral Service at the New Haven County Bar Association. Michau has since moved to Chicago to pursue a graduate degree.