Opinion No. 203 (1996)

QUESTION 1: May a judge permit brochures in her courtroom and other public areas in the courthouse that announce the availability of a county bar sponsored lawyer referral service? The referral service is a non profit organization open to all qualified lawyers and complies with American Bar Association guidelines, State Bar guidelines, and state statutory requirements. The referral service in question screens questions to determine if legal representation is needed, informs callers if they qualify for pro bono legal services, makes a referral to the next name on a rotating list of attorneys who have agreed to provide an initial consultation for a nominal fee in their given areas of expertise, and maintains a list of attorneys available to provide legal services at a reduced fee in certain legal matters.

ANSWER 1: Yes. Canon 4B permits a judge to participate in extra-judicial activities concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice. Access to our courts is usually not meaningful without the assistance of lawyers. Many members of the public do not know how to find a lawyer, especially one they can afford. A judge who advertises the existence of a lawyer referral service is promoting meaningful access to our legal system for all persons, regardless of their economic condition.

Even though the lawyers selected through this referral program will charge a fee to their clients, the judge is not promoting the individual lawyer but is assisting the public to locate a lawyer who professes familiarity with the legal issues, maintains malpractice insurance and agrees to charge only a modest consultation fee, and perhaps a reduced fee to clients of modest means. By informing the public of this bar sponsored service, the judge is improving the administration of justice, as permitted under the Code, not misusing the influence of her office.

QUESTION 2: May a judge appear in a televised public service announcement and recommend that unrepresented parties contact the county bar sponsored lawyer referral service to find a lawyer before going to court?

ANSWER 2: Yes. Canon 4B would allow the judge to inform the public that it is wise to have legal representation in court. Because the judge is not recommending any individual lawyer, but a lawyer referral service that is open to all lawyers who maintain malpractice insurance, announce their areas of expertise, and agree to a nominal consultation fee, the judge is not lending the influence of her office to specific lawyers but is using the influence of her office to advise the public of the desirability of obtaining a lawyer before appearing in court and informing those without other resources of one service that might help them find appropriate legal representation. Because a lawyer selected through such a referral service is never identified there is no danger that lawyers on such a list would be in a position to influence the judge who endorses the lawyer referral service.