Law Society of Alberta hangs up on the Lawyer Referral Service

Online directory will supplant phone-based system, which LSA says was 'not meeting expectations'

Law Society of Alberta hangs up on the Lawyer Referral Service
Debbie Klein, Parisa Jiwa, Karamveer Lalh

The Law Society of Alberta is shutting down its phone-based Lawyer Referral Service (LRS).

September 22 is the last date that Albertans will be able to pick up a phone, call a 1-800 number (or a local Calgary number) and be provided with the names of three lawyers who might be able to assist the callers with their legal issues. After that, people turning to the ALS for help finding legal representation will have to rely on the society’s revamped online lawyer directory.

A statement on the society’s website explains the reasoning behind the discontinuation of the more than 50-year-old service.

“We did not make the decision to close the LRS lightly. We understand that finding a lawyer can be overwhelming, especially when people are in distress or facing a difficult time in their lives. Connecting the public with lawyers in Alberta remains an important goal for the Law Society,” it wrote.

“Over the last few years, we reviewed the LRS to determine its effectiveness and assess its long-term sustainability for users, lawyers and the Law Society. We gathered feedback from LRS users and Alberta lawyers, as well as held discussions with stakeholders in the legal community to learn how their clients were using the service.

“Feedback gathered confirmed that the LRS was not meeting expectations on many fronts. Callers expressed they were not always matched with the right lawyer for their legal issue or were unable to connect with a lawyer once they received contact information. Both lawyers and others in the legal community shared that there was a misconception with callers that the service offered free legal advice, when it was only ever meant to be a referral service.”

The transition is expected to result in several consequences – both minor and significant – for both the legal community and for members of the public.

On the smaller side, lawyers in the province are reminded that according to rule 42, they must have their current contact information on file with the law society, as searches in the directory will return matches across the entire membership database, except for those lawyers who have withdrawn their names for reasons including working as in-house counsel, being employed by a government office or not currently accepting new clients into their practices. In contrast, lawyers had to volunteer to have their names put forward by the LRS.

Lawyers and firms may have to consider how they intend to handle referrals in the future. Those who post webpages containing legal resource information for the public will need to update their websites.

Edmonton-based James H. Brown and Associates is one of those firms. It is also a firm that has directed people to LRS.

“Most personal injury law firms do have a pretty substantial advertising presence as a way of trying to get in new clients. And so as a result, we often got inquiries that weren’t related to our fields of practice. We would typically send them [to the Lawyer Referral Service], if we didn't have like a regular referral for the specific type of issue that they were dealing with,” explained Karamveer Lalh, a lawyer with the firm.

The problem of people not knowing what types of law lawyers or firms practise is quite prevalent, especially when there are overlapping concerns, explained Parisa Jiwa, a lawyer and the sole proprietor of Calgary Legal Coaching. She said it is something she sees with her clients, just as she experienced when she answered LRS calls five years ago.

“I sometimes think that the general public just doesn’t have conviction, strength or knowledge about how to access the law or to know where to go,” she said. “When I sat in at Calgary Legal Guidance, and we answered phone call after phone call, that’s what somebody at the end of the line was able to do [for the callers]: we were able to reassure the individual and synthesize what area of the law that they really needed.”

(LRS was operated by Calgary Legal Guidance for several years before the LSA brought the service back in-house in 2020. Since then, the LSA said it typically has around 20,000 callers per year, with civil litigation, criminal, family, administrative or estate planning lawyers being the most common referral requests.)

Debbie Klein, the executive director of the Edmonton Community Legal Centre, said that in light of LRS closure, she anticipates that the centre’s clients will need assistance figuring out which type of lawyer to search for in the online directory and the legal team is preparing to offer even more of that kind of assistance than it already does.

Lack of knowledge of practice areas is just one barrier to accessing legal help; cost is another, and informing clients who have minimal means that they will be able to search for lawyers who offer limited-scope services will also be part of what the centre’s legal team will likely wind up doing. (This year, Klein said the centre is on track to receive 40,000 inquiries of all types.)

“A service that has some technical aspect to it, in and of itself, creates some barriers. It’s going to be up to us to help people to know what to expect. In addition to making the referral to that new service, we’ll have to help them to know what types of things to enter into the search criteria.”

As with any change, the shutdown of the LRS and the move to promote the capabilities of the online directory will take some adjustment, but lawyers understand that the old system was far from perfect. Lalh, Klein and Jiwa acknowledged that Albertans weren’t always happy with the results they received from the LRS. Sometimes, the callers couldn’t get in touch with the recommended lawyers. Sometimes, they experienced frustration that the initial, free, 30-minute consultation with the referred lawyers only resulted in legal information, not legal action or advice.

Lawyers, too, can find being part of the LFS taxing, says Jiwa. “It gets to a point of exhaustion because you want to do so much more for an individual when you receive that call.”

The Alberta Law Society told Canadian Lawyer that it, and the rest of the society’s web pages, are designed to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1). People can search for a lawyer using several criteria, including location, area(s) of practice, language(s) spoken, gender and whether a lawyer offers limited-scope retainers. It provides contact information for all lawyers in Alberta, and there are approximately 7,500 Alberta lawyers in private practice.

The LSA has also created a guide that will appear on the website shortly to help individuals navigate the site and find the right lawyer for a specific issue. There is also an online resource posted to assist the public in understanding the types of law that might apply to their circumstances. Additionally, work is underway to make the directory mobile friendly.

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