Allen Charne
Allen Charne (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

Allen Charne, the longtime executive director of the New York City Bar Legal Referral Service (LRS) has been the leader and innovator of a program that annually fields more than 75,000 calls from consumers and makes more than 23,000 referrals in matters ranging from torts to bankruptcy to matrimonial issues and beyond. Some grievances prove silly; others turn out to be significant cases that have a lasting legal effect.

But after 30 years at the helm, Charne, 66, is retiring. He says he plans on spending more time with his family, traveling and even getting back on the handball court.

Charne, who had been in private practice in San Diego before taking on the challenges of the referral service, looks back with pride at his time with the program, which, in addition to its day-to-day work informing the public of the role of lawyers, under what circumstances legal advice is needed, answering basic legal questions and referring callers to qualified counsel, also stepped up to coordinate thousands of lawyer volunteers to help fellow New Yorkers affected by 9/11.

“It’s been wonderful to be able to have an impact in ways that I never would have been able to otherwise,” he says.

Charne’s last day on the job overseeing a staff of 10 attorneys is Dec. 31. He is being succeeded by George Wolff, who will take over early next year. Wolff most recently worked as the Oregon State Bar’s referral and information services manager.

The referral service is sponsored by both the New York City Bar, which manages the program, and the New York County Lawyers’ Association.

Q: What was the rationale for establishing the service 70 years ago?

A: During the 1930s, a blue ribbon committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the New York County Lawyers’ Association and the National Lawyers’ Guild reported that although many people contact the bar associations asking for recommendations of lawyers ‘no machinery exists in New York City for bringing prospective clients able to pay a modest fee for legal services, in touch with worthy lawyers competent to handle their legal problems.’ The committee also noted that many people, who do not know that legal assistance would be helpful, fail to get assistance in time and their problem may become insurmountable.

These issues and the ethics and practicality of establishing a Legal Reference Bureau were studied and under discussion for a decade before Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Consideration of a referral bureau was put on hold as lawyers joined the war effort.

During World War II, the Legal Assistance Offices of the Army and Navy handled millions of legal matters for service men and women. As the war ended, the new GI Bill provided for no-interest, no-down-payment home loans, education benefits, low-interest loans to start businesses and other benefits. Marriages, divorces, wills, leases, mortgages, a wide range of legal issues faced the returning veterans. Those returning included lawyers whose practices had been put on hold or interrupted by the war.

This confluence of client need and lawyer availability sparked the creation of the Legal Reference Bureau that became the Legal Referral Service, the first lawyer referral service in New York state. In 1946, two leaders of the legal profession—Harrison Tweed, president of city bar and Joseph Proskauer, president of NYCLA—joined forces to create the Legal Referral Bureau (now the Legal Referral Service) in New York City.

In his 1945 speech to the membership of the city bar, Tweed said:

“I should like to see this association discard the traditional lawyer’s attitude that we are too proud to try to make people understand us and the work we do. If we do not tell people why and when it is important to consult lawyers and fail to convince them that they will be benefitted by our advice, who in the world is going to do it?”

Q: Has that rationale changed?

A: The basic rationale has not changed. The Legal Referral Service is one of very few lawyer referral services in the country that has lawyers on staff helping explain to the public what lawyers do and how they may benefit from legal advice and representation.

Q: What is unique about the service?

A: The Legal Referral Service is the only lawyer referral service in New York state with multiple lawyers on staff answering calls from the public, giving basic information on many legal issues. Anyone may write, fax or email a question to the LRS. If the question is appropriate for a simple answer, one is provided. When the question is not one that our staff can answer, but seems like one we should be able to answer, an experienced lawyer on the relevant panel may be consulted.

The Legal Referral Service has specific experience criteria that a participating lawyer must meet in order to be accepted for referrals. The service is the only one in New York state with a qualifications subcommittee that determines each lawyer applicant’s suitability for recommendation.

LRS sets appointments for 40 clients per week for the City Bar Monday Night Law Program and an additional 20-30 per month for NYCLA’s Law Advisory Workshop. At these clinics, the clients meet with volunteer lawyers for free consultation and advice in housing, consumer, bankruptcy, family and employment matters.

A committee of lawyers and judges appointed by both sponsoring bar associations meets each month from September to June to review application standards, assess client complaints, suggest ways to better serve the public and the profession and help monitor quality control issues.

Client satisfaction forms are sent to each referred client that agrees to receive such a form.

Q: What changes to the LRS during your tenure are you most proud of?

A: Requiring panel members to have professional liability insurance; requiring applicants to the referral panel to meet specific experience requirements; establishing qualifications subcommittees to interview each attorney applicant; expanding the referral panels from 12 areas of law to more than 20 areas with over 100 subcategories; requiring written retainer agreements; helping to establish and promote the Monday Night Law Clinic; and responding to mass disasters, including 9/11.

Q: What are the most common matters for which callers seek advice?

A: The most common today are torts and workers’ compensation, then family law matters, followed by labor and employment, then landlord/tenant and trusts and estates.

Q: Are most callers low- or moderate-income people?

A: That depends on the area of law and how the income divisions are defined. Most callers with matters that are typically handled on an hourly fee basis are in the moderate to middle income areas, between $60,000 and $300,000.

Those with very modest incomes cannot generally hire private lawyers unless their problem falls into an area generally handled on a contingency or fee-shifting basis. Those in the lower socioeconomic grouping are more likely to be victims of discrimination, police misconduct, medical malpractice and on-the-job injuries.

Other than contingent matters, many in the lower income ranges are referred to free legal services and given appointments with the bar association law clinics. We are only referring about one third of the callers to private lawyers. In matrimonial, commercial litigation, white-collar criminal matters, estate planning and administration as well as real estate, securities and transactional areas, the client income and assets can be quite substantial.

Q: Has the public’s access to legal services improved over the years?

A: The substantial cuts in funding for organizations that provide free legal services, beginning with the Reagan administration and continuing, have had a severe impact on the delivery of civil legal services to the poor. Rising legal fees, especially in Manhattan, have made it increasingly difficult for those of moderate- and even middle-income and higher to retain lawyers.

Law school clinics are beginning to pick up the slack and organizations such as the New York Legal Assistance Group have made important and substantial contributions toward improving access to legal services. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s initiative requiring candidates for admission to the New York bar to provide pro bono services, as well as the city bar’s recently announced program to train new lawyers, reflect the continuing efforts to meet these difficult challenges.

Q: Any unusual or bizarre requests?

A: We get many requests from people who are delusional, whose toaster is speaking to them or who are being followed by aliens.

Q: Any high-profile or significant cases that started with a call to the service?

A: An LRS referral ended the widespread practice in New York of restaurant employers pocketing ‘service charges’ that should be paid to the wait staff. The LRS panel members took the case even though the practice seemed to be legal under existing appellate law. After a loss at the trial court and 5-0 dismissal by the Appellate Division, the Court of Appeals in Samiento v. World Yacht, 10 N.Y.3d 70 (2008), unanimously reinstated the wait staff’s Labor Law claims. The holding effectively abolished the practice of retaining such charges instead of distributing them to wait staff.

A call to LRS from a mother whose children were removed solely because she was the victim of domestic violence was referred to a panel member who recognized the importance and widespread practice of this conduct by Administration for Children’s Services and successfully brought a class action in the name of the LRS referral client and all others similarly situated enjoining this practice. Nicholson v. Scoppetta, 344 F.3d 154 (2003).

Clients who were denied employment because of old, nonrelevant criminal records were helped by a panel member.

A little girl was playing with her cousins in her aunt’s apartment. She slipped and leaned against the glass top of a cocktail table. The glass came off severing her thumb. The lawyer hired a cocktail table design expert who testified that by having three points of contact between the base and the glass instead of four, and a lightweight glass top, the table was unstable and defective. A substantial settlement was obtained for her.

In another matter that had been turned down by some of the best known tort lawyers in New York, a panel member achieved a seven-figure recovery for a client who had been injured by a 30-year-old delicatessen machine that had been manufactured in Italy.

One of the first disasters that occurred during my tenure was the fire at the Happyland Social Club in the Bronx. LRS helped coordinate with tort lawyers, immigration lawyers, social workers and others to represent the families of victims.

For the TWA and United Airlines crashes, LRS lawyers who agreed to not represent any of the families went to the sites where the families were gathered to explain their basic rights, the legal process and to avoid improper solicitation.

Q: What does the service offer? Consultation? Full representation?

A: An initial free discussion with one of the lawyers on staff to help the caller decide whether referral to a private lawyer is appropriate or whether another alternative may be helpful.

Initial half-hour consult, never more than $35 regardless of the lawyer’s regular hourly rates. For matters handled on a straight contingency fee basis there is no consultation fee. Special Civil Court panel for matters in which the dispute involves less than $25,000. Participating lawyers have agreed to charge no more than $175 an hour with a maximum retainer of $1,500.

Q: Do you ever turn people away?

A: Yes, we only recommend private lawyers to about one third of the people who contact us. Forty people a week are scheduled for free appointments at the Monday Night Law Clinic. Another 30 a month are scheduled for appointments at the free Lawyers Advisory Workshop at NYCLA. Others may be given the information they require, referred to the City Bar Justice Center or to an appropriate agency.

Q: What role did the service play in the aftermath of 9/11?

A: As part of the profession’s response to 9/11, during the initial three months calls for help were funneled through the Legal Referral Service. Training of lawyers took place at the city bar. Within days, the program had coordinated with iLawyer (the authorized Internet vendor for ABA approved lawyer referral information service, LRIS programs, now owned by LRS) to set up a special emergency website, which enabled the LRS to enter and track referrals. As the volunteer lawyers completed training, their names, contact information and specialties were entered into a referral template that would allow for checks for conflicts of interest and for lawyers to be connected with clients.

More than 1,000 lawyers volunteered to help. Procedures were established to allow the staff of New York State Bar’s LRIS and the Bar Association of Essex County, N.J., to enter data directly into the iLawyer/Legal Referral Service database. This data entry feature, coupled with an agreement to take calls on the NYSBA’s toll-free disaster assistance number, enabled the LRS to expedite assistance to victims when its staff were inundated. It also provided toll-free access to family members from out of town who had lost relatives or had other 9/11-related legal issues.

Q: What role did the service play in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy?

A: LRS had a more limited role in relation to Hurricane Sandy. Much of the relief provided to victims was handled by various free legal services agencies in New York, such as the City Bar Justice Center. The New York Legal Assistance Group, the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC entities provided enormous help. LRS’ role was more limited to helping the Justice Center provide training in insurance-related issues and helping a limited number of property owners with insurance problems. The New York State Bar Association’s LRIS also played a significant role in establishing a referral panel for hurricane victims.

Q: Why did you join the service?

A: After leaving private practice in San Diego to return to New York, Dennis Hawkins, who was the general counsel, was looking for a successor to Richard Haydock, who had been the LRS executive director since the service began in 1946. Future Chief Judge Judith Kaye had reviewed major referral service programs and made significant suggestions for improvements. After studying her report I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity. With the support of Dennis and Fern Schair, then the city bar’s executive secretary, and the bar’s president at the time, Robert McKay, I was offered the position.

Q: What advice would you give your successor?

A: Get to know the panel members and the staff. Stay aware of changes in the law and in the way legal services are delivered. Remember that regardless of how well the staff and the lawyers serve the clients who call, the public needs to be constantly reminded that we are here and of what we do. Consistency and knowing the way things have been done in the past are valuable. However, keep in mind that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. Be open to new methods of delivering legal services and informing the public through social media and meeting with community leaders.