Metropolitan Lawyer Referral Service: A Model of Resilience
by Courtney Gibb
MLRS Executive Director
Just a few decades ago, in a land far removed from iPhones and portable computers, lawyers were prohibited from advertising.
As a result of that ban, referral organizations became the go-to connection for lawyers looking to find clients in need of their services—and vice versa. Thus, the Metropolitan Lawyer Referral Service was founded in 1972 in Denver.
During the period of time in which MLRS provided the solution to the prohibition, they experienced strong membership. Attorneys counted on the service to provide them with a solid flow of new clients, just as clients approached MLRS for credible, specialized legal connections.
That began to decline, however, when the Supreme Court ruled in the 1977 case Bates v. State Bar of Arizona that attorneys were allowed to advertise. MLRS struggled to maintain membership growth and adapt to the future of law.
Changing the MLRS Landscape
Fast forward to March 2004, and that’s where Brian Barney, the current MLRS Executive Director, comes in. He initially was hired to manage the MLRS office after Barbara Arbogast retired. He soon realized, however, that he was taking on much more than he bargained for. When he started, he was surprised to learn that the organization was still using DOS—Microsoft’s first computer operating system.
"I knew it was too old-fashioned," said Barney. "A large part of what I did when I started was to modernize the office."
The first order of business, then, was to alter the basic ways in which the Metropolitan Lawyer Referral Service operated. Barney was confident in his knowledge of technology and knew he could improve the service; yet, a pressing matter interrupted their foray into the future: a lack of funds.
In 2009, MLRS approached the Denver Bar Association, a sponsor of the organization, and asked for help. Members of the bar questioned whether MLRS truly had utility in the future, and the request was ultimately denied.
The American Bar Association conducted a PAR Review of the organization shortly after that. The Program of Assistance and Review is designed specifically to aid lawyer referral programs by way of on-site visits and expert advice. The ABA made recommendations to streamline their procedures, and MLRS rolled out the suggested implementations to survive.
As a 501(c)(6) nonprofit, MLRS was not able to accept donations. Barney found relief by way of their small but loyal membership base, who prepaid membership and percentage fees to tide MLRS over. He also let go his colleague, Reginald Pulley, the only other employee left, for six months to save money. He ran the organization by himself from Nov. 2009 to May 2010. Once MLRS received enough money to resume more normalcies in operations, Barney hired Pulley back on.
The Future of MLRS
With 2014 looming, Barney’s efforts are now fully focused on making the service as effective as possible for both clients and attorneys. MLRS has a new website and mobile app, as well as a search engine optimization campaign to improve online visibility. Barney and Pulley are also diving into the world of social media.
And even though Barney knows many people doubt the usefulness of a referral agency, he isn’t letting the inconsistent past define the future. MLRS offers a rich history of connections and holds many benefits by way of membership access and digital coverage.
"As a referral agency, we have more leverage than an individual attorney," Barney said. "Members can tap into our credibility."
Barney hopes that their legacy will aid them in boosting referral counts this year, as they take critical steps to adapt to changing times. The MLRS online presence, for example, continues to evolve and attract a more affluent client demographic— one who appreciates their reliable reputation and legal knowledge. This is beneficial for attorneys who are not reaching or retaining the type of clients they’d like by way of more traditional marketing efforts.
As society becomes increasingly dependent on the Internet, it is more difficult to sort through the clutter of attorney listings in search engine results and advertisements. MLRS provides an easy way for clients to be matched up with prescreened attorneys who specialize in exactly what they need, and attorneys receive valuable recommendations and serious clients.
Barney estimates that, at one point, more than 80% of clients were referred to MLRS from attorneys who didn’t know how to help them. This illustrates the incredible value still to be found in this service: it’s an all-inclusive legal resource. If you can’t take a case, MLRS will find someone who can.
Visit MLRS online at mlrsonline.org and on Facebook at facebook.com/MetroLawyerReferralColorado.
Attorneys who want to get involved with MLRS can email Brian Barney at Lawyers@MLRSonline.org or call (303) 831-8000. D
Courtney Gibb is the communications and marketing specialist for the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations and editor of The Docket. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.