News and Information
November 24, 2008

Virginia Lawyer Referral Service Offers Chance to Market Practice, Help Community


The decline of Wall Street is producing many challenges to lawyers and clients on Main Street.

People need legal advice as they cope with financial setbacks and associated stresses. Lawyers feel the pressures of marketing their practices in a less affluent environment, and of doing what they can to help their neighbors.

The Virginia Lawyer Referral Service (VLRS), a program of the Virginia State Bar, can help with each of these challenges. But the service itself needs support, in the form of participation by lawyers in rural areas.

The program offers a one-half-hour consultation with a lawyer close to home for a fee of $35, which the program keeps to offset its costs of operation. The consultation can be in person or by telephone.

After the consult, if the referral wants to pursue a case and the attorney agrees to take it on, lawyer and client negotiate terms of the representation. Or either one can end the relationship, with no obligations.

To select the attorney, the VLRS staff in Richmond turns to a roster of lawyers who pay $75 a year to provide consultations in up to thirty-five areas of law. The lawyers must be Virginia State Bar members in good standing with no open disciplinary complaints, and they must have legal malpractice insurance.

For the $75, the service performs several marketing tasks for its participating attorneys. The VLRS

• advertises for people who have legal problems and want to talk to a lawyer;
• takes their calls. The three-person staff fielded 26,000 calls last year, of whom 7,500 paid for consultations.
• prescreens each caller to determine whether his or her needs involve legal problems;
• collects the $35 fee up front, which minimizes no-shows and frivolous callers;
• gets client through the lawyer’s door.

The referral consultations require no paperwork and no collection of money by the lawyer. A lawyer can limit the number of referrals he or she will accept in a given time, and change that number as his workflow requires.

So once the client is in the office, what is the benefit to the lawyer?

It could be a paying client. “There are some nuggets in the ore. They just have to be mined,” said Daniel L. Rosenthal, a Richmond attorney who until recently served on the VLRS Committee.

Some people with resources turn to the VLRS because they’re not sure how to select an attorney, and they want one referred by the bar. These people include out-of-state callers who have a legal matter involving Virginia law. Some people with resources want to gather information at minimal cost before they decide whether to become involved in a legal case.

It might be an opportunity to generate goodwill, by giving enough information during the half-hour consult to solve the referral’s immediate problem. “A lot of people who think they have a legal problem can be helped by referral to an agency or consumer affairs,” Rosenthal said.

If something else arises down the line, the client will remember that lawyer. “It’s certainly helpful to maintaining the respect that the profession deserves,” he said.

Rosenthal added that some lawyers use VLRS referrals to build a client-generating list. They send newsletters or other promotional materials to keep their firm in the referral’s mind.

It might be a pro bono opportunity. Many lawyers are doing what they can to assist people in their communities. By giving half-hour increments of their time to help people answer questions and resolve conflicts, lawyers can alleviate some of the stress that comes with difficult times.

Rosenthal said that VLRS-referred clients are managed like any other. “Set the time aside, as you would in any practice, to return calls. It’s really the same as screening any new case that comes in.”

To maximize the time, have the referral send documents — a lease or contract, for example — so you can review it before the conversation.

The VLRS’s biggest current challenge is to recruit enough lawyers to serve all areas of the state, but rural Virginia, including some of the state’s most impoverished areas, is falling short.

VLRS lawyers are needed in the following counties:

1st Circuit: Accomack and Northampton
6th Circuit: Surry and Sussex
9th Circuit: King and Queen
10th Circuit: Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Halifax, and Lunenberg
11th Circuit: Nottoway
15th Circuit: Caroline, Essex, King George, Richmond, and Westmoreland
16th Circuit: Fluvanna, Greene, and Madison
21st Circuit: Henry and Patrick
25th Circuit: Bath, Botetourt, Craig, and Highland
26th Circuit: Clarke and Shenandoah
27th Circuit: Bland, Floyd, Giles, and Grayson
29th Circuit: Buchanan, Dickenson, and Tazewell
30th Circuit: Scott

To learn more about the VLRS or sign up as a participating attorney, go to http://www.vsb.org/docs/VLRS_app.pdf. For questions, contact Toni Dunson at (804) 775-0591 or dunson@vsb.org.

Updated: Nov 24, 2008