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The State Bar’s best kept secret: Lawyer Referral Services

By Carole Conn and Seth Chavez

Carole Conn and Seth Chavez
 Conn                          Chavez

With an extremely diverse array of marketing opportunities available to lawyers in California, many are opting for an old favorite to source clients and build business: Lawyer Referral Services (LRS).

The first LRS programs in California appeared in the 1930s and 40s. Today, LRS programs operate throughout the state, typically by county, referring cases in every practice area. Regulated by the State Bar of California, LRS groups provide key business building opportunities for lawyers and support the critical access to justice efforts of local bar associations.

LRS certainly isn’t for every lawyer, but it may also be a “best-kept secret.” According to State Bar data, in 2014 there were nearly 6,000 lawyers participating in LRS programs throughout the state. In 2014, California certified lawyer referral services referred over 150,000 cases. At two of the larger LRS programs in California, Los Angeles and San Francisco, some lawyers rely exclusively on LRS to generate new business, while others use LRS to augment other business-building efforts. Participating lawyers in at least one California LRS program have collectively billed more than $10 million in attorney’s fees each year over recent years and some LRS programs have secured a number of seven-figure settlements on behalf of referred clients.

As California lawyers attempt to navigate marketing options and avenues to generate more and better quality leads, LRS programs appear to be gaining momentum with lawyers in California. A recent Daily Journal article noted that between 2007 and 2014, there was a 17 percent increase in the number of lawyers participating. Increased use of LRS could be due to LRS groups reducing law firm marketing costs, as well as reducing intake costs by screening clients in advance and placing cases with the right participants based on types of legal issues, location, client’s ability to pay, language spoken and many other criteria.

LRS programs provide another service to lawyers by offering a safe referral for a potential client. The LRS network is 52 programs strong throughout California, with most counties covered. As such, there is likely a lawyer referral program nearby to send clients who may need assistance with a matter outside a lawyer’s practice area. Because certification by the State Bar mandates adherence to meticulous qualification standards, oversight and monitoring of client representation and insurance requirements for participating members, lawyers who refer clients to certified lawyer referral services are putting the client in the capable hands of trained intake staff and vetted attorneys.

Additionally, LRS intake teams are very knowledgeable about the wealth of legal resources in their county, including free legal services programs, when it is determined that the client’s needs are better served through an appropriate agency or community-based nonprofit. LRS programs refer to local legal agencies, legal clinics, low-cost and pro bono services, community based nonprofits, governmental agencies and social services to best direct clients to the information they need.

Whether a lawyer has a few years of experience or is more senior, LRS programs can be a great asset, either for the reward of providing a public service and sourcing new clientele or as a reliable, trusted partner for referrals to experienced attorneys and helpful legal resources. For more information, see the bar’s consumer pamphlet online.

Carole Conn is director of public service programs at the Bar Association of San Francisco and Seth Chavez is the director of the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service.