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When reporters and editors in Ohio need to know their rights to certain government doc­uments or whether they must issue a retraction to a story, they don’t have to go far for legal advice. If they are members of a state media association, they’ve got a lawyer standing by ready to take their call.

Lawyers at Baker & Hostetler man a hotline for the Ohio Newspaper Association, and they are not alone in their enterprise. Law firms around the country staff hotlines, often pro bono. Among them are one in Houston for consumers with bank­ruptcy questions and one for members of a Midwestern Realtors group.

And, as the economy continues to tank, more law firms are readying them­selves to be that legal operator standing by with the hope that, by answering little questions, they may reel in something bigger.

“We’re helping people make the right initial decisions when they’re faced with these issues and hopefully helping them avoid litigation,” says Louis Colombo, a Baker & Hostetler partner in Cleveland who helps on the hotline.

Firm hotlines operate on different business models. Baker & Hostetler receives a small monthly retainer from the media group that allows its members to call certain firm lawyers directly. Chicago-based Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal is manning, pro bono, a Web-based hotline for members of the Media Bloggers Association who’ve purchased the group’s liability insurance.

Sonnenschein partner Blaine Kimrey says the firm agreed to staff the hotline for a variety of reasons. “What I will get is the satisfaction of helping bloggers exercise their First Amendment rights,” says Kimrey, a former journalist. But the project also will help the firm train young associates, and be a recruiting and retention tool. “Many of these same positives could apply to similar hotlines at other firms.”

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