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November 17, 2017 Dialogue

LRIS: From the Chair

By Stephen Steinberg, Standing Committee on Lawyer Referral and Information Services

It was great seeing everyone at our annual workshop earlier this month, and I was pleased to present the initial results of our first ever comprehensive data study on the collective impact of lawyer referral services nationwide. As suspected, but never proven before with hard data, lawyer referral programs have a dramatic impact on the delivery of legal services and access to justice, including vetted attorneys, alternative legal and community resources, as well as attorney members' business development efforts and retained casework.

Below are some of the findings of the 2017 Lawyer Referral and Information Service Census, which collected information about the operations and characteristics of over half of the LRIS programs nationwide. The findings contain data on services, referrals, panelists, fees, marketing, revenue, and costs. The hope is that the census will supply program directors, administrators, and bar association leaders with important information to better highlight the enormous impact LRIS programs are having, and provide useful data by which to benchmark your LRIS against comparable programs.

Here are some highlights from the census with over 55 percent of programs nationwide reporting:

  • 1,522,796 people contacted lawyer referral services last year via email and phone.
  • 522,150 were referred to community based organizations, governmental or social services, and pro bono legal services programs.
  • 561,825 were referred to a lawyer.
  • Of those referrals, 119,179 people retained LRIS lawyers to provide legal services.

Where survey respondents submitted data for both the number of contacts, and the number of referrals and/or retentions of lawyers, individual program conversion rates were calculated then averaged. This showed that:

  • 45 percent of all contacts are referred to a lawyer.
  • 12 percent of all contacts retain a lawyer.

If they practiced together, collectively LRIS lawyers would be the largest law firm in the world:

  • 18,210 lawyers participate.
  • 25 percent of all consumers referred retain a lawyer.

The top five subject matter areas include:

  1. Family
  2. Landlord/Tenant
  3. Employment
  4. Personal Injury
  5. Estate Planning, Probate, and Elder Law

Lawyer referral services continue to develop new ways of providing legal services to underserved populations and fill the justice gap, with sixty programs now offering modest means/reduced fee programs and twenty-nine programs now offering unbundling/discrete task representation.

Close to 90 percent of LRIS programs are at least breaking even on an annual basis, and the vast majority are generating more revenue than costs, which helps support other bar association services, like pro bono and MCLE. The jury is still out on consultation fees, but the bottom line is that there are many successful programs that use consultation fees and many successful programs that eschew such fees. However, the survey results demonstrate definitively that a program must have a percentage fee structure to be financially self-sustaining. Those lawyer referral services with percentage fee programs generate many times more revenue than those services without percentage fee programs, with those revenues going back into bar association operations, often including public service initiatives and pro bono programming.

With respect to marketing, lawyer referral services spend an average of just about $20,000, or about 19 percent of costs and 11 percent of revenue, annually to publicize their existence and value to their communities. The top paid advertising vehicles are print materials, brochures, posters, and paid Google advertising campaigns. Top referral sources are courts, attorneys, legal aid/social services, and of course, the internet.

We hope to provide additional analysis of the survey results in the future—perhaps providing the ability to compare bar associations or lawyer referral services of similar size and scope e.g. distinguishing between local versus state bar administered services.

Going forward, we hope that the number of programs participating in future surveys will grow to further refine the data results while providing useful information to improve programming and build discussion on the elements and benchmarks that support a successful LRIS.

To view more of the census results, click on this link to the ABA Annual Workshop PowerPoint presentation 2017 Annual LRIS National Census.