Q&A: Allen Charne

, New York Law Journal

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Allen Charne
Allen Charne

Allen Charne, the longtime executive director of the New York City Bar Legal Referral Service (LRS) has been the leader and innovator of a program that annually fields more than 75,000 calls from consumers and makes more than 23,000 referrals in matters ranging from torts to bankruptcy to matrimonial issues and beyond. Some grievances prove silly; others turn out to be significant cases that have a lasting legal effect.

But after 30 years at the helm, Charne, 66, is retiring. He says he plans on spending more time with his family, traveling and even getting back on the handball court.

Charne, who had been in private practice in San Diego before taking on the challenges of the referral service, looks back with pride at his time with the program, which, in addition to its day-to-day work informing the public of the role of lawyers, under what circumstances legal advice is needed, answering basic legal questions and referring callers to qualified counsel, also stepped up to coordinate thousands of lawyer volunteers to help fellow New Yorkers affected by 9/11.

"It's been wonderful to be able to have an impact in ways that I never would have been able to otherwise," he says.

Charne's last day on the job overseeing a staff of 10 attorneys is Dec. 31. He is being succeeded by George Wolff, who will take over early next year. Wolff most recently worked as the Oregon State Bar's referral and information services manager.

The referral service is sponsored by both the New York City Bar, which manages the program, and the New York County Lawyers' Association.

Q: What was the rationale for establishing the service 70 years ago?

A: During the 1930s, a blue ribbon committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the New York County Lawyers' Association and the National Lawyers' Guild reported that although many people contact the bar associations asking for recommendations of lawyers 'no machinery exists in New York City for bringing prospective clients able to pay a modest fee for legal services, in touch with worthy lawyers competent to handle their legal problems.' The committee also noted that many people, who do not know that legal assistance would be helpful, fail to get assistance in time and their problem may become insurmountable.

These issues and the ethics and practicality of establishing a Legal Reference Bureau were studied and under discussion for a decade before Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Consideration of a referral bureau was put on hold as lawyers joined the war effort.

During World War II, the Legal Assistance Offices of the Army and Navy handled millions of legal matters for service men and women. As the war ended, the new GI Bill provided for no-interest, no-down-payment home loans, education benefits, low-interest loans to start businesses and other benefits. Marriages, divorces, wills, leases, mortgages, a wide range of legal issues faced the returning veterans. Those returning included lawyers whose practices had been put on hold or interrupted by the war.

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