With its Lawyer Referral and Information Service, the Milwaukee Bar Association is seeking to help attorneys, businesses and Wisconsin residents survive the COVID-19 pandemic’s far-reaching consequences.
The nonprofit service connects the public with legal assistance through referrals to a network of vetted lawyers — an arrangement that benefits both attorneys and their potential clients.
“It’s not just revenue generation,” said Sarah Martis, the Milwaukee Bar Association’s executive director. “It really is to help people navigate the legal system as best they possibly can. Hopefully that’s with an attorney, but if it’s not, we want to try to be a resource.”
Martis estimated the Lawyer Referral and Information Service phone line receives about 50 calls a day. The MBA has an employee answering the calls, and she points people in the right direction — whether that’s through a referral to an attorney or other resources.
“She sees everyone as a person,” Martis said. “I can’t tell you the number of times people tell us you’re the first person that’s really listened to me. We don’t de-priorize people because they can’t pay. We still try to get them the kind of help that they need.”
Since the pandemic’s beginnings, the Lawyer Referral and Information Service phone line has received many questions about landlord-tenant issues, employment law, business-interruption insurance, force majeure clauses and more.
“There’s nothing we haven’t heard,” Martis said.
Martis estimated about half of the callers are referred to members of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service. Attorneys must pay a membership fee to join the network and receive referrals. Members of the MBA receive a discount when signing up for Lawyer Referral and Information Service, although MBA membership is not a prerequisite for joining.
When applying, attorneys indicate their practice specialties and what kind of referrals they’d like to receive. Martis said some areas have Experience Panels, which require attorneys to provide examples of as many as five cases they’ve tried in a particular specialty in order to be included on the list.
“It’s not just a pay-to-play,” Martis said. “We do try to make sure everybody is in the game.”
She said the majority of members are small to midsize firms or solo practitioners that use the service for marketing and to secure clients. Some of these members are seeing a decrease in clients amid the pandemic.
The attorneys who are part of the MBA’s referral network are offering reduced-fee legal services to nonprofit groups and local chambers of commerce to help restaurants and other small businesses that are also struggling in the wake of the pandemic.
“I thought maybe there’s a win-win here where I could help generate more revenue for the attorneys and then help restaurants,” Martis said.
Martis said several associations have sent out information about the reduced-fee services, and it’s been well received by all.
“It serves multiple purposes,” Martis said. “It helps members of organizations and the organization itself.”