Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Referral Service Attorneys Take Calls From Public On Fox 13 Morning Show

By John F. Kynes

It was nearing 7 a.m. on a recent Thursday inside the studios of WTVT, Fox 13, on Kennedy Boulevard. The “Good Day” show’s early morning broadcast team had been cheerily running through the latest news, weather, and traffic backups on the local bridges since well before dawn.

During a commercial break, one of the show’s producers told the group of 20 or so volunteers from the Hillsborough County Bar Association to quickly get seated at the rows of phone banks set up in the studio. Given the early morning hour, all the attorneys were surprisingly bright-eyed and alert. It was time for the morning show’s popular “Ask-A-Lawyer” call-in segment to begin.

“We started the ‘Ask-A-Lawyer’ segment in 1993, and it has been part of ‘Good Day’ ever since,” said John Hoffman, vice president and news director of Fox 13. “We think it’s a great value to our viewers, and judging by the number of calls we get, our viewers truly appreciate it.”

“Ask-A-Lawyer” airs the first Thursday of every month, and all the attorneys involved are members of the HCBA’s Lawyer Referral & Information Service (LRIS). The attorneys generously volunteer their time by fielding questions from “Good Day” viewers and offering free legal advice.

Attorney Larry Samaha said he has participated in the monthly program for “at least 10 years” and that he enjoys fielding calls from viewers on a wide range of topics. Everyone works together to help manage the high volume of phone calls that come into the studio during the broadcast, Samaha said.

Also, beginning a few months ago, viewers gained the ability to ask questions online via FOX 13’s Facebook page. Several attorneys, including Shazia Sparkman, sat at computers in the newsroom and answered questions in an online chat room set up by the station. “It’s pretty amazing,” Sparkman said, referring to the use of social media to respond directly to questions from the public.

Attorney Dale Appell has been a regular volunteer on the program for the past eight years. He says it has been a great opportunity “to develop relationships with like-minded people who don’t mind getting up early in the morning to help people with legal questions who can’t afford to get help anywhere else.”

“There’s also a good degree of camaraderie among the group,” Appell added.

Lupe Mitcham, the HCBA’s energetic LRIS director, helps coordinate the attorneys who participate each month and oversees LRIS on a day-to-day basis. “LRIS provides a great community service, and the legal referrals we provide also benefit the lawyers who participate,” Mitcham said.

In case you don’t know, the LRIS works like this: Individuals looking for legal advice call the LRIS at (813) 221-7780; an HCBA staff member briefly interviews the callers and assesses their situation; and, if appropriate, callers are then referred to a participating LRIS attorney for a 30-minute consultation, for a small fee, to discuss their legal problem.

Mitcham says the public can have confidence in the LRIS when they call because every attorney in the program has to meet certain qualifications and, depending on the practice area, has to have a certain level of trial experience. Plus, it is one of only two LRIS programs in Florida certified by the American Bar Association.

Last year, LRIS received just more than 14,000 individual calls from the public. Based on the information provided by callers, more than 4,800 legal referrals were made to participating attorneys in various practice areas, from bankruptcy to probate.

As an additional public service, the HCBA waives the initial consultation fees for callers who have certain legal problems, such as those involving Social Security, senior wills, torts, personal injury, workers’ compensation, and others. In addition, consultation fees are waived for all active-duty members of the military, no matter what their problem.

If you are interested in participating in the LRIS, or if you just want to learn more about this outstanding HCBA community program, please contact Lupe Mitcham directly at (813) 221-7783.

See you around the Chet.