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County bar's Lawyer Referral and Information Service keeps on giving

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When Elise, 80, was evicted from her granny flat by her landlord after complaining multiple times of the sewage smell leaking through her pipes, she didn't know who to turn to for help.

Miguel worked 25 years for a company that let him go one day short of his receiving his full pension and was shocked and confused at what he perceived to be wrongful termination.

Theresa was perfectly content to represent herself in court regarding her divorce, but needed a lawyer to simply help her with all the paperwork.

Each month the San Diego County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) receives thousands of calls from people in need of legal assistance, and refers those callers to lawyers or organizations who can help.

Founded in 1952, LRIS is one of the bar organization's largest programs. LRIS puts San Diegans who have legal questions and concerns in touch with qualified attorneys, knowledgeable in the subject area in question. Through the program, the public, including underserved and underrepresented constituencies, has access to licensed attorneys who have passed a stringent professional evaluation by the bar.

The service is free to those seeking legal help, and includes a one-half hour session with the LRIS panel lawyer with whom LRIS connects the client. After the half-hour session, if the client chooses to retain the counsel LRIS suggests, the client works out the fee arrangement with the attorney directly.

Calls to LRIS are taken by counselors who, though not lawyers, are experienced in analyzing potential legal problems and determining the appropriate course of action to assist the caller. Some callers simply need direction on what resources exist to help them find the information they are looking for, such as the Better Business Bureau, the Social Security Administration or the Health and Human Services Agency.

When appropriate, counselors refer callers to community resources for non-legal help such as shelters, and organizations providing medical assistance.

"The important goal for each of us is to direct people who call to someone -- anyone -- who can help them out, whatever their situation is, and not say 'we can't help you,'" said LRIS counselor Monica Torres.

Some callers are unable to afford attorneys' fees and are guided toward community pro bono services such as the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program.

In family law matters, callers who meet income and asset criteria are directed to attorneys in the bar's LRIS Modest Means Program. There are 36 family law "modest means" attorneys to whom qualified callers are referred for discounted legal assistance. Only callers in need of legal assistance and able to pay an attorney are referred to LRIS panel members.

There are four full-time counselors taking calls from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

The LRIS committee undertakes a rigorous screening process for those attorneys who want to participate in the LRIS panel of lawyers.

If a lawyer's advice is recommended, the caller is given the name and contact information of a licensed, insured and experienced LRIS panel member. LRIS considers a caller's specific legal problem, as well as the caller's location and language requirements in order to make the most appropriate and convenient referral possible. To ensure fairness to the attorneys, referrals to the panel members of a particular practice are rotated randomly within the practice.

The program not only helps members of the community seeking legal counsel, but it also helps San Diego County attorneys.

First, it provides a unique way for attorneys to build their practice, by becoming an LRIS panel member and then receiving referrals from the LRIS counselors.

Secondly, it enables attorneys to offer a free ABA and State Bar of California-certified referral system for when their existing clients have a legal matter that is not part of their practice.

When an attorney's client or contact is up against a legal issue that the attorney is not experienced in, the attorney can refer the contact to LRIS and the individual is then put in touch with a lawyer who has the appropriate experience. Looking at the numbers, the number one source of referrals for calls made to LRIS comes from attorneys.

This has not always been the case. Through 1999, most people who called LRIS made the call because of LRIS's listing in the telephone book, or because a friend or family member suggested LRIS.

In 2004, nearly 9,000 of the calls made to LRIS came from individuals who were referred to the program by an attorney -- a vast majority of referrals and nearly twice the number of people who simply found LRIS in the Yellow Pages. The third largest source of referrals is previous clients who remember the listening ear of the LRIS counselors, and then tell their friends and family.

In 2004, the Bar's LRIS received 46,660 calls. Of the calls made to the program, LRIS counselors made 25,741 referrals; 12,238 of the calls were resolved with the free half-hour consultation. In March 2005 LRIS received 4,571 calls and made 2,183 referrals.

LRIS panel members handle everything from administrative law and adoption to wills and workers' compensation issues.

Within this broad scope of matters, the highest number of referrals in 2004 was made regarding family law. Social Security disability, labor, criminal misdemeanors and commercial litigation were included in the top five legal areas in which the referrals made by LRIS resulted in the caller retaining the referred panel member attorney.

Landlord-tenant cases, civil litigation and personal injury were the legal subjects with the highest number of conference only referrals (after family law) -- in which the caller met with the referred attorney for a half-hour at no cost and received the information he or she needed. After the half-hour consultation, a caller frequently chooses to not move ahead with a case.

Frequently, people calling LRIS who do in fact need an attorney, have no idea what kind of attorney they need, and the counselors have to wade through the callers' stories to determine what the issue is and what kind of attorney can best address it.

There are currently 392 attorney panel members whose ranks break out by subject matter demand. There are over 50 bankruptcy attorneys, for example, and over 70 family law practitioners. There are only six consumer fraud attorneys and five lawyers practicing taxation on the panel.

A percentage of the attorney's fee goes back to the LRIS program. The revenue created by LRIS is not mixed with bar monies and instead is used for LRIS program operating expenses and is primarily targeted for charitable contributions to the community through the San Diego County Bar Foundation.

In 2004 the Bar's LRIS donated $75,000 to the Bar Foundation, and in 2005 the LRIS program has already donated $100,000. The Bar Foundation uses that money to ensure that underrepresented people in the San Diego community (such as the elderly, children, immigrants, the disabled, and domestic violence victims) have access to legal services and an improved administration of justice.

The SDCBA's LRIS also has made special contributions to the foundation to help the community during times of crisis. In 2003 LRIS contributed $10,000 to the Bar Foundation to help victims of the October 2003 wild fires access legal services.

While thousands of San Diegans benefit from finding the legal resources they need through the bar's LRIS each year, thousands more benefit from the efforts funded by the program through the Bar Foundation.

Asked what services or changes to the program they would make if they could, LRIS counselors unanimously chorused -- more Spanish-speaking attorneys experienced in all areas of law. To apply to be a panel attorney, contact LRIS at (619) 231-0781.

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