American Bar Association

Labor Department Partners With ABA in Lawyer Referral Program

  • Print.


Screen shot of VP Biden from live stream.

Some workers whose complaints aren’t resolved by the U.S. Labor Department will be told of another option: Find a private lawyer through an ABA-approved lawyer referral program.

The collaboration between the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division and the ABA was revealed Friday morning at a White House press conference. Vice President Joe Biden announced the new program, saying it was one of three new initiatives designed to help middle-class and low-income people. The others involve linking veterans to legal aid programs and training lawyers and others to help homeowners with mortgage modifications.

Also speaking were Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and ABA President-elect Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, who explained the program relies on lawyer referral networks that are already in place.

In a typical year, more than 35,000 workers contact the Wage and Hour Division with complaints, according to the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs. Most are resolved, but thousands can’t be resolved because of limited capacity, Solis said at the press conference.

Now, beginning on Dec. 13, workers with unresolved complaints under the Fair Labor Standards Act or the Family Medical Leave Act will be told of another option. They will get a letter explaining their rights and offering a toll-free number that can link them to ABA-approved lawyer referral programs in their geographic area.

Referral programs that are ABA-approved comply with the association’s model ethics rules. They require consumer safeguards such as verification of bar membership, proof of malpractice insurance or financial responsibility, and screening to make sure lawyers have sufficient experience in the subject matter. And clients can’t be charged any additional money for participating in the service.

ABA President Stephen N. Zack calls the project “a win-win for everyone.”

“As lawyers, it’s at the core of our beliefs that people with serious legal needs should be able to readily find good representation,” Zack says in a statement forwarded to the ABA Journal. “The Department of Labor is setting up a creative, compassionate method for helping some of those who come to them with likely claims under the Federal Labor Standards Act or Family and Medical Leave Act. Providing a connection to a lawyer who’s already undergone vetting is a terrific idea that will help people in need. We’re pleased that the ABA’s Legal Referral project is the administration’s lead partner in this.”

Is there a chance that the program will be discontinued by future administrations? Zack answered the question this way: “This project fills an important need, and the impact of seeing people with serious legal problems easily find good, qualified help should make this an effort that has a long, long life,” he said in the statement.

Sheldon Warren, a Long Beach, Calif., lawyer who is chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Lawyer Referral & Information Service, talked to the ABA Journal about the collaboration on Thursday as he was on his way to Washington, D.C., for the announcement.

“To say I’m excited would be an understatement,” said Warren, who has been involved in lawyer referral services since 1981 when he first became a lawyer. He says the Labor Department contacted the ABA earlier this year because it wanted for formalize a referral process taking place in some offices on a more informal basis. The aim was to make sure that workers were referred to attorneys with expertise in their areas of need, “which is a perfect fit for lawyer referral,” he says.

In Warren’s view, certified lawyer referral programs help consumers while helping the image of the profession. “I think lawyer referral is the best way for moderate and low-income individuals to find a lawyer,” he says. Wealthy people may already know or have a lawyer, he says. But “a lot of folks, moderate and middle income, simply don’t know how to find lawyers that are capable and insured.”

Linking consumers with lawyers experienced in their areas of need “makes it different than just using the Yellow Pages or some Google search,” he says. And consumers aren’t the only ones who benefit—the profession also gets a boost.

“I’ll tell you what,” he says. “Folks that go through lawyer referral services and get help when they have a problem—they’re not the ones that joke about lawyers.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.