Vol. 84, No. 2, February 2011
According to the lunar calendar, a full moon is scheduled to rise on Feb. 18. The legal assistants who answer the State Bar’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) phones don’t need to consult a calendar to find out when a full moon is approaching. They know because calls become more frequent, more urgent, and slightly more bizarre.
Approximately 35,000 people call LRIS each year and another 5,000 access the referral service online. Some states have considered closing their referral services or providing them only online, but Wisconsin’s call-in referral service is going strong. One of those reasons may be the Lawyer Hotline Program, the “I” in LRIS.
Only about 9,000 of the 35,000 calls to LRIS result in a referral to an attorney for representation. The remaining callers receive basic information or a referral to a specific community or governmental agency for assistance or are directed to the Lawyer Hotline. If they call the Hotline, at a scheduled time a lawyer then returns the telephone call and conducts a brief conference.
In 2010, 97 attorneys returned 584 calls to people with legal questions. Callers raised issues ranging from the simple, such as “where do I file a claim to recover the security deposit on my apartment?” to the unusual, such as “the refrigerator in my apartment fell on my cat,” to topics in the news, such as debtors being threatened with jail time for contempt or fraud related to unpaid small-claims judgments. Many of the questions concerned landlord/tenant law.
The lawyers returning the calls inform the person seeking information that they only provide information and that the conversation should not be construed as a representation. A lawyer who learns as the conversation unfolds that the issue is more substantial than it originally was believed to be cannot take on the representation but must refer the caller back into the referral service to get an attorney. The process safeguards the attorney from an inadvertent representation and also makes clear to the caller that the lawyer is not trying to get a client.
Most Hotline attorneys come from Madison-area firms, with many participating in the two-hour evening Hotline (usually held on Wednesday) at the State Bar Center. Attorneys from one corporation also regularly volunteer. The activity allows them to teambuild with colleagues. The LRIS also conducts Hometown and Law Firm hotlines throughout the state – a host attorney or firm donates office space, and area volunteers return calls. The Kenosha, La Crosse, and Door County bar associations volunteered to return calls in the last year. The State Bar pays for telephone, food, and beverage expenses, and publicizes the Hotline service.
There is still time to sign up to volunteer this year. There are several openings for Wednesday evenings, but you can volunteer anytime that it is convenient for you. This may be just what you are seeking if you are looking for a limited term pro bono opportunity and some camaraderie among colleagues. We’ll even throw in the sandwiches.
For more information about LRIS or to set up a Hotline, contact Patricia
Ruppert at (608) 257-4666 ((800) 362-9082 outside Madison).