State-certified lawyer-referral services across California connect tens of thousands of California residents with vetted lawyers each year. But many of these services - which seem
like ideal tools to address the large and growing unmet need for legal representation - actually saw their caseloads stagnate and even shrink during and after the financial crisis.
The problem is that these services - which are run by a variety of groups and supported in part by legal fees that resulting cases generate - don't actually provide or fund legal help. They connect lawyers and paying clients but send others along to social service agencies. They also generally can't afford to market their services, which might help them reach more potential clients. Meanwhile, the main funding source for free and low-cost legal services - interest accrued on attorney trust accounts - fell 70 percent as interest rates sank.
In fact, for many of the services, even as demand has risen, fee-paying referrals have dropped. An example is the Sonoma County Bar Association, where Legal Programs Manager Win Rogers says referral calls have been rising steadily, but only about one-fourth of the 237 people who called in May got formal referrals. And many of the rest were sent to social service agencies for free or low-cost legal help. Directors of services in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Alameda counties aren't sure why their caseloads fell in recent years, but they suspect it's because low- and moderate-income people needing legal help increasingly assume they can't afford it and don't bother even calling.
Adding to the challenge of serving unmet needs, certified referral services are not evenly distributed: 18 serve parts or all of Los Angeles and four nearby counties, while just 34 serve the state's 53 other counties.