THE ROLE OF LAW LISTS
At virtually every social function where one is making the acquaintance of people for the first time, it is inevitable that the question will be asked, “What do you do for a living?” For an attorney, the answer is a fairly simple one. For a collection manager, a response is likely to come easily as well. For the law list publisher, however, a meaningful response requires a detailed explanation of the business in which forwarder, listee, and publisher are all engaged.
In point of fact, a collections law list would be nothing without the complex relationship of lawyer-collection agency-debt buyer-law list which makes up the forwarding system inherent in the structure of the CLLA, DBA, NARCA, IACC and ACA. Conversely, it is likely that the relationship between lawyers and collection agencies would be very different without the element provided by the companies which comprise the Association of Law List Publishers. It is, therefore, of considerable value to lawyers, debt buyers, and agencies alike to understand how the law lists function in this relationship, and what they can do to promote their interests, enhance their image, and facilitate their relationships with colleagues and clients.
Just what is a law list? It is a publication maintained primarily for the purpose of presenting the names of lawyers available for professional employment. Usually it is not a general directory, but shows the names of one or more lawyers or law firms for each town in the area covered by the publication. In the case of the collections law lists, they are each comprised of attorneys located in various cities throughout the United States and foreign countries who are interested in handling collections and bankruptcy matters.
Historically, the law lists were born near the end of the 19th century, when commerce developed to such an extent that it became necessary to have some dependable means of obtaining legal counsel in distant areas where business transactions were entered into and credit was extended. Without a reliable means to enforce the obligations created, credit could not have been extended on such a grand scale. As the economy continued to grow, selective law listings became increasingly important. In the thirties, the American Bar Association created a Standing Committee on Law Lists which established Rules and Standards to which the lists were required to comply in order to receive a Certificate of Compliance, signifying that the recipients were considered reputable. Although the Standing Committee no longer exists, every current member of the Association of Law List Publishers held the Certificate of Compliance during the period when it was being issued, and they continue to publish their listings in accordance with those rules and standards.
The law lists are made available to lawyers, collection managers of the various National Association of Credit Management offices, credit insurance companies, insolvency accountants, debt buyers, and collection agencies; in other words, these lists are used principally by those who have need of out-of-town counsel for collections and bankruptcy matters. The lists are not sold publicly, but they are distributed without charge only to those who will use them for their intended purpose. Forwardings consist for the most part of collection matters including both commercial and retail claims, although listees certainly receive a considerable number of bankruptcy matters, creditors’ rights cases, as well as general legal referrals, as a result of their listings with reputable collections law lists. This is chiefly because lawyers who forward over forwarding lists have developed a rapport with the lists and confidence in their service, such that they frequently forward general legal matters.
Bonding coverage is also supplied by the lists who are members of the Association of Law List Publishers to cover the rare instance of an attorney defalcation which might occur as the result of a forwarding; for example, the ALQ supplies a $2,000,000 policy underwritten by Chubb Insurance Group. Most lists also provide services to supplement bonding coverage, such as assistance in cases of breakdown of communication, placement assistance in conflict of interest cases, and referrals in areas where no bonded counsel is available.
These are the formal services provided by all lists, which will be found in their contracts and literature. However, there are less formalized services which are provided by the law lists and can be utilized to great advantage by both listees and users of the collections law lists.
How does a law list function for its listees? Primarily, of course, the law list’s function is to promote the attorney as available for employment by publishing his or her name in the listing. Beyond that, however, a law list can do a great many things to increase the forwarding volume into a listee’s office. Number one, the publisher will be actively seeking increased volume of use of his list in general, as well as seeking new forwarding sources, which will benefit all of his listees. In doing this, he builds personal rapport with individual forwarders. This in turn enables him to function as a link in the forging of working relationships between individual forwarders and attorneys.
A law list can be helpful to the attorney when difficulties arise between lawyer and forwarder such that he is in danger of losing an account. Often this is the result of some misunderstanding or disagreement which the list, as a neutral party, can help to resolve. Law list publishers take heated criticism, from time to time, from both listees and forwarders, for seeming to always take the side of the other in a difficult dispute. It must be recognized that the publisher’s chief responsibility to the lawyer is to retain the forwarder’s good will, both for the individual lawyer involved and for all of their listed lawyers; after all, for what does a lawyer pay his listing fee, if not to have the list maintain the favor of as many forwarders as possible? The list cannot afford to antagonize a forwarder, or the list and all of its listees stand to lose valuable patronage. By the same token, of course, a list does not want to lose a good lawyer representative over such a dispute. Therefore, the publisher will seek a solution which satisfies both parties and violates the rights of neither.
Because of their daily involvement in lawyer-forwarder relations, most law list publishers are very knowledgeable about the in’s and out’s of collection practice. They can be very helpful to lawyers who are uncertain about how to handle a particular situation, whether it is a problem with a specific case, or a more basic question such as how to provide good service on a profitable basis.
Generally speaking, anything a law list publisher does to enhance his own image or the image of his publication is of benefit to all of his listees. Increased usage of the list will almost always benefit them all in some way. In that regard, all of the law list publishers are actively involved in functions sponsored by the Commercial Law League, and in other ways work to maintain their presence in the industry, including active participation in related organizations such as the International Association of Commercial Collectors, American Collectors Association, Debt Buyers Association, National Association of Retail Collection Attorneys, National Association of Subrogation Professionals, and National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees.
How does a law list function for its collection agency and attorney-forwarder users? Its primary goal is to provide a medium for the forwarder of out-of-town claims, in order to enable them to provide good service to their clients. The list provides them with the names of lawyers who are both interested in and able to handle the claims they need to forward, not only in major commercial areas, but also in small towns and rural areas, as well as in Canada and foreign countries.
In many ways, the law list publishers are the eyes and ears of the industry and serve as a clearinghouse for information. They are constantly traveling throughout the country, talking on the telephone and accumulating information about our industry. Their users are kept supplied with up-to-date information which is vital to the forwarding process.
In addition to the lists they publish, law list publishers provide other placement services to forwarders. When the listed attorney is unable to handle a claim for some reason, the publisher will assist the forwarder in finding alternative representation for their client. If there is no listed counsel available, the list will attempt to assist the forwarder in establishing contact with unlisted counsel who is willing to take on the case. Sometimes, there is a case which requires special attention or expertise; the list can help the forwarder find an attorney who can meet those requirements.
Beyond these services, a law list publisher who is knowledgeable about the attorneys he lists can help a forwarder to establish a relationship with an attorney who can meet his special needs. For instance, some agencies have clients with special fee or reporting requirements. Others like to work with attorneys who service large areas. In a city where there are many attorneys, some may have expertise in certain types of claims or claims arising from specific industries. The publisher can provide information which will assist the forwarder in establishing contact with legal counsel which can satisfy their needs.
One of the prime services afforded to the user of a collections law list is the assurance that the attorneys listed therein are knowledgeable in the collection field. The lists screen applicants for experience and expertise, and are continually evaluating the service provided by existing listees as well. Beyond seeking experienced practitioners for listing, the law lists encourage new listees to join the CLLA, NARCA, and other collection industry trade associations and take steps to assure that they become familiar with standard collection practice. When problems arise between forwarder and attorney in the course of handling a matter forwarded over a particular list, the list stands ready to lend the necessary assistance to get the matter back on track. Law lists routinely service communication breakdowns between parties, and they also may become involved in fee disputes and other kinds of complaints involving the services provided by their listees. In the rare instance where a severe difficulty arises, the law list may be required to pay out under the terms of its bond, or assist in seeking the cooperation of a Bar Association or other client remedy.
These services provided by law list publishers do more than protect the client from loss of money or poor service. They also enable forwarders to provide good service to their clients at a reasonable cost. The law list can step in when the forwarder’s efforts to seek satisfactory service from an attorney are unsuccessful. If the attorney’s status report is overdue and prompts are not answered, the law list will follow up the matter until the problem is resolved. Very often, in fact, the law list publisher can make a phone call or send an email and obtain a verbal report on the very same day he receives a request for assistance. In addition, if the attorney’s response is not reasonable or adequate, the law list publisher can assist in rectifying the problem in order to restore the level of service the client requires. While this type of assistance is not required on the vast majority of cases placed through the law lists, it can make the difference between profit and loss in handling some difficult claims. It is a fact that breakdowns in communication occur most frequently on cases in which collectibility is negligible. When the prospects of earning a fee are unlikely for either forwarder or attorney, neither wants to incur the cost of unnecessary correspondence.
How do the law lists function? Anyone who has attended a CLLA, DBA, NARCA, IACC or ACA convention can tell you that the law list publishers are in evidence at any meeting, busily carrying on conversations with attorneys and forwarders alike. But they are not just discussing listing contracts and forwarding needs. They are helping these parties to meet with each other to forge their own mutually satisfying relationships. In recent years, the law list publishers have assumed an increasingly active role in the activities and business of these organizations, particularly in the educational areas. Perhaps it should be said that the law lists’ primary contribution to these associations and its members is to lend a perspective. In their unique position as the “go-between,” the lists function as a reminder that we are all on the same team, participating in pursuit of the same goals. Attorney and forwarder should never be adversaries in seeking to serve their mutual clients, for then everyone loses. It is important that we maintain friendly working relationships in order that we can all do our best jobs. It is fostering good attorney-forwarder relations that is the primary work of the law list publishers; it is “what we do for a living.” It is in pursuit of this goal that we attend CLLA, NARCA, DBA, IACC and ACA and other industry meetings, participate in rap sessions, seek to make the acquaintance of every attorney and forwarder, and consistently sponsor the most new members to these organizations.
© Copyright 2022 by the AMERICAN LAWYERS QUARTERLY