LRIS Program Marks 75 Years of Making the Right Match Between Lawyers and Clients
"We are the 411 for legal. We sort, sift, talk to people, and triage. We’re one of the main funnels for screening people for income and case type to get them to programs for free help.” — Carole Conn
What started as a modest program to help returning World War II veterans has grown into a nationally-recognized, award-winning lawyer referral service that serves the public and the legal profession. As the San Francisco-Marin Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) marks its 75th year in operation this year, we look back at how the program has evolved and where it’s headed. (While this piece focuses on the lawyer referral side, stay tuned for a future one highlighting the Court Programs side of LRIS.)
The service most often starts with a phone call. People with legal issues who don’t know where to turn can call 415-989-1616. The intake team asks questions to figure out how best to address the question or problem. Sometimes that means referring callers to one of the 250 government and nonprofit agencies with the resources to help.
“We are the 411 for legal help”, said Carole Conn, Director of Public Service Programs who oversees LRIS. “We issue spot, listen with compassion and triage to make the best referral. And we are a critical resource to screen people for pro bono legal services programs, including our own JDC."
The mission of LRIS is "to educate as many people as possible about their legal rights, to give as many people as possible access to affordable, competent legal representation, to study cultural trends and investigate current social and political realities in order to identify those most in need of access to our system of justice, and to modify and expand our capabilities and services in order to accomplish the above," said Conn.
Callers may also receive a consultation with a qualified attorney for $35. Here is where the 300 to 400 experienced panel members come in. The lawyers serve on panels that match their practice area knowledge. They are vetted to make sure they have the proper experience, with practice standards in place to assure the public an attorney with the LRIS is competent in their field of law. Panel lawyers must also meet other criteria, such as holding malpractice insurance.
“Practice standards ensure that LRIS attorneys are competent and experienced in their areas of practice”, Conn said. “Our attorneys are screened for recent, ongoing experience to handle clients and cases across more than 20 principle areas of the law."
The lawyer referral service, and others like it throughout California, are regulated by the State Bar of California. The service collects a portion of the attorney’s fees to pay operational expenses. Any profits must be used for charitable purposes; donations have gone to such worthy causes as minority scholarships and pro bono services.
The service has a public interest mission. Conn and her staff keep an eye on emerging legal needs and make sure lawyers are prepared to handle the demand. Conn said that that could mean holding educational programs or coordinating with government agencies and other nonprofits.
In the 1970s, panel members accepted reduced rates to assist Vietnam War veterans.
In the 1980s, a growing number of people dealing with legal questions related to the HIV virus turned to the referral service for help, which eventually led to the creation of a separate organization, the AIDS Legal Referral Panel. At the beginning, much of the work revolved around wills and estate planning. Decades later, the service evolved to handle questions from same-sex couples about domestic partnerships and even later about marriages when they became legal. Naturally, questions about same-sex divorce eventually cropped up as well. To this day, the two organizations continue to partner to serve the public.
In the 1990s, after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the referral service trained lawyers about the new law and put together a panel to help people enforce their civil rights.
Over the years, the referral service has responded to natural disasters such as wildfires and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. When COVID-19 hit, the service provided emergency assistance for creating wills and estate plans. Likewise, the passage of Proposition 19 last year—which increased the tax consequences for children inheriting residential property from their parents—brought an influx of estate planning inquiries.
We’re always watching the legal, social and cultural shifts to stay attuned to the changing legal needs in our community.” -- Carole Conn, Director of Public Service Programs
And when California began legalizing marijuana, the service responded by creating a cannabis panel. Partnering with the San Francisco Office of Cannabis, we created a limited scope pro bono panel for underserved community members wanting to start a cannabis business. Simultaneously, the LRIS established a cannabis law panel for full-scope legal representation.
“We’re always watching the legal, social, and cultural changes to best provide for the public's legal needs,” Conn said. "Sometimes that means partnering with city offices or other nonprofits." Examples include working with the V-HUB to better connect veterans and military service members to legal resources and assistance; and the ADA Compliance for Small Businesses, which helps businesses respond to so-called "drive-by" lawsuits and create ADA compliance plans.
In addition to keeping up with legal trends, the referral service has adapted to changes in the way people access legal services. For example, to address the growing number of unrepresented litigants in family court in recent years, the referral service established a limited scope representation panel in family law. In another example, when the Marin County Lawyer Referral Service closed in 2014, the LRIS program was selected to expand to serve people in Marin County.
The future of LRIS is going to be bright. The service will continue to evolve and develop to meet the public's legal needs using all available channels to connect.” — Carole Conn
LRIS has been instrumental in building the practices of solo and small firms for decades. Through the outreach and community activities along with case screening, lawyers are referred clients with viable legal issues.
"While the primary focus of the referral program is helping the public, there’s a secondary benefit as well to attorneys," said Joshua Ridless, who chairs the program’s oversight committee and first signed up to serve on panels in 2003. “I’ve had some really good cases. It became a good source for building up my practice, and I still use it.”
The program has also evolved with emerging technology, Conn said. Consumers can submit their information online instead of by phone. But Conn said in the internet age, consumers have come to appreciate talking to a live person. Picking up the phone is often better than surfing the web for an attorney who may not have the proper training or experience.
“The future of LRIS is going to be bright,” Conn said. "The service will continue to evolve and develop to meet the public's legal needs using all available channels to connect."
After 75 extraordinary years, the LRIS looks to the future and continues to fulfill its mission to develop and respond to new legal issues as they arise in the community. Look for more about the history of LRIS, the Court Programs, and the evolution of BASF as we celebrate BASF's 150th year in 2022.
- To educate as many people as possible about their legal rights;
- To give as many people as possible access to affordable, competent legal representation;
- To study cultural trends and investigate current social and political realities, in order to identify those most in need of access to our system of justice;
- To modify and expand our capabilities and services in order to accomplish the above.