The face of the Omaha Lawyer Referral Service is its executive director,
Donna Birkby. She shares an office with the Omaha Bar Association at
the Creighton University School of Law.
A Half-century of Service
OBA Public Service Award Goes to Lawyer Referral Service
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
The Omaha Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service (LRS) is having a big year: It is celebrating its 50th anniversary and it is receiving the Omaha Bar Association’s Public Service Award today at the 2012 Law Day Luncheon.
While its success is no doubt due to many factors, not the least of which is the list of dedicated attorneys who participate in the service, there is little argument that a chunk of that success is due to one person.
Executive Director Donna Birkby has been at the helm of the Omaha Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service for 23 of its 50 years.
In that time, she has built not only a wide, and deep, arsenal of lawyers who make themselves available for consultations with potential clients, but also the trust of lawyers and clients alike. Her calm, professional demeanor assures all involved that this service will be handled with experience, dignity and discretion.
The Service’s secret weapon, who was honored in April as the Omaha Legal Professional Association’s Legal Professional of the Year, is also having a big year.
After a few minutes visiting with her about her job, it is obvious why she – and the LRS – has been successful. This job is her passion.
More than 23 years ago, she needed an attorney, and not knowing where to turn, she called the Lawyer Referral Service.
“I had gotten injured on the job and as a single parent I had recently started back to school. The attorney I got through the service was awesome,” she said.
“Later, the attorney called and asked if I was still interested in a job in the legal field. When I said yes, she said, ‘You’ve got to go to this interview.’”
That interview was with the Lawyer Referral Service.
“Lawyer referral is a passion of mine. I remember when I needed a lawyer and didn’t know where to go. I ‘get it’ from the attorney side, and I ‘get it’ from the public side,” Birkby said.
“I love working with these lawyers. … That’s why I get up and go to work every morning. I just remember how kind and respectful the attorney I had was. When I started here I said, ‘if that’s the kind of lawyers I will work with, I’m here and I’m staying.’”
Birkby continued, “I believe that the attorneys are at the heart of this service, and are well deserving of [the Public Service] award. I’ve had so many of them say, ‘Well, the $40 fee is okay, but I’m doing this for public service.’
“I believe it’s not just because of new clients; it’s truly the public service. It’s part of the LRS mission, as well as the OBA’s mission to provide [this service to] the public.
Birkby said she often hears from clients who thank her and the lawyer for “the opportunity.” Multiply that satisfied customer by the thousands of calls she gets every year, between 10 and 40 a day. Of those calls, the 148 lawyers who are currently participating have between 1,100 and 1,200 client meetings a year.
There is a misconception that everything is free, Birkby said. While there is never a fee for the referral (finding and contacting an appropriate attorney), there is a “very reasonable” $40 fee for a half-hour initial consultation (there’s no consultation fee for cases involving personal injury, worker’s compensation and Social Security Disability). If the client hires the attorney, then the client pays the lawyer for his or her services after that.
If the client cannot afford to pay a lawyer, LRS refers them to another service, such as Legal Aid of Nebraska, the state bar’s Nebraska Volunteer Lawyers Project, The South Omaha Legal Clinic, Creighton University Legal Clinic, even the Self-Help Desk, all free or reduced-fee services.
LRS handles requests from Douglas, Cass, Sarpy and Washington counties. Other requests are referred to the state bar’s service.
Nearly all areas of law are covered. A few of the more difficult areas to cover are federal workers’ comp, school law and the military. “But we try, because we hate to turn anyone away. We always try to find something,” Birkby said. And since she is trained in mediation, she can handle just about every caller, no matter his or her level of anxiety.
The average number of years in practice of the participating lawyers is between 10 and 25. Many of them sign up year after year, lawyers like Mike Schirber of Schirber and Wagner in Papillion, who explained his philosophy: “I first joined LR as a young attorney to build a practice. I have continued it all these years (42) as I found it a great vehicle to give back to some of the less fortunate. The minimum $40 fee makes it possible for people to talk to an attorney who otherwise might not even make the effort.
“Every time I have added an attorney to my office, I insist they join LR even if they have an established cliental. It is also very helpful that LR classifies attorneys by areas of expertise, making it much easier for potential clients to make contact with the right type of attorney rather than contacting a half a dozen, which can be very frustrating for the uninformed.”
Rich McGowan of McGowan Law Firm, and current OBA LRS committee chair, said, “Donna Birkby does a phenomenal job of listening to callers and getting them an appointment rather quickly [almost all appointments are set within 24 to 48 hours] with an attorney who can handle their unique situations. Not only does this entail deciding what practice area covers the caller’s needs, but also finding an attorney who will be a good personality fit for the caller.
“Obviously, many seeking legal assistance are under a lot of stress, and Donna has a keen ability to ascertain callers’ states of mind and comfort them. She also helps the callers define what their legal issues are.”
McGowan said LRS panel members “do a great job at explaining to prospective clients what the legal system realistically can and cannot do for them and directing them to appropriate legal and non-legal resources. Sometimes a prospective client is well advised to file a lawsuit in Small Claims Court or perhaps try to resolve matters through the Better Business Bureau.
“Other times a prospective client just needs to be trained on how best to resolve the dispute with the other party. Of course, often the prospect needs to hire the panel attorney, and our panel members consist of some of the most-respected attorneys in their various practice areas.”
He noted that the LRS recently launched a new website [omahalawyerreferral.com] that is more user-friendly, better describes services and ranks higher on search engine results. It has resulted in a sharp increase of prospective clients learning about the LRS from the Internet.
“Our referrals from attorneys have also increased drastically in the last few years.”
McGowan also noted that many attorneys are understandably concerned about liability for negligent referrals. Because referring one to the LRS isn’t a referral to a specific attorney, but rather to a bar association-run program that has certain requirements for its panel members, the LRS helps insulate one against liability for a negligent referral.”
“As a public service, we are a vehicle to get questions answered. People get nervous when they have a legal problem. They know more when they leave us,” Birkby said.
“Giving this award to the attorneys – past and present – who make up the referral service is wonderful. They may not realize it, but they have made a huge difference in someone’s life.
“Because of that, I still have the passion, 23 years later.”