Interview with Eric Samuels of David M. Sternberg & Associates

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Eric I. Samuels is an associate with David M. Sternberg and Associates in Walnut Creek, CA. With more than 25 years of experience, the law firm specializes in Real Estate, Probate, Bankruptcy, and Business Litigation. Learn more at http://www.davidsternberg-law.com/

Eric I. Samuels, who joined David M. Sternberg & Associates five years ago, has been an active supporter and panel member of the Contra Costa County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS). The CCCBA sat down with Eric and spoke with him about his experience and success with the LRIS.

Have you had any particularly successful LRIS referral story you would like to share with us?

Eric Samuels: There are three basic categories of LRIS clients that we get: The first type of potential clients – small business owner, individual, couple – who come in are people who have a real legal matter, a pressing legal issue that they want to discuss with a lawyer.

They want to see whether: 1) Can our firm handle this case, is it within our area of expertise? 2) How much is it going to cost to move forward? 3) What are the chances of success?

That is the category of clients that we love because these are clients who will be hiring a lawyer for something they want to move forward on, once they become comfortable with a lawyer.

Just in the past year or two, I met with a couple who had their home foreclosed on after spending many months trying to work out a modification of their principal loan with their lender. As you can imagine, individuals get very frustrated trying to work with their lender, trying to get a modification, providing paper work and so on. This particular couple came into my office following a foreclosure after months of trying to negotiate a modification.

After meeting with them and looking through all of their documents, it was determined that the bank messed up, in terms of agreeing to a modification and then not accepting their money and foreclosing anyway. It was a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. To make a long story short, we initiate a law suit against the lender and the outcome was very successful.

We saved their home, we got a deal, we got the principal on their loan reduced, and we got them into a good monthly payment plan. The couple got their home back, and it was only because they know to call the Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service, who then got the couple in touch with me, and that is the most successful outcome for many reasons:

1) We helped a couple in Contra Costa County; 2) We helped them save their home, which obviously helps the economy; and 3) we made money – we got a referral that turned into a good case. So that is the most successful story in that particular type of case.

The second category of clients we see are individuals, couple, small business owners, who maybe just have one particular issue they have to deal with. With those types of referrals, we either try to solve that problem within the 30 minute time period or we count them as what we call ‘one-time billable’.

There’s one specific task that they want us to get done and we bill them for the amount of time it takes or we charge a flat fee for that task and that’s it – it’s a one-time deal. We deal with the legal issue and move on. So that’s the second category of success – where you meet with someone, you find out what the problem is, you deal with it and it’s done. Again, we call these one-time billables and we’ve had many of those.

The third category of success includes situations that may not generate any revenue for us but it makes me feel the best. That’s when I talk to individuals who really don’t have any money and they can’t afford any money for legal fees.

Maybe they owe a credit card debt, maybe they’re being evicted – they don’t have the money for a lawyer. The $30 they paid to the Bar Association as a referral fee is the extent of what they can pay. So, these are the types of people I try to counsel within those 30 minutes, to give them the tools to handle the situation on their own.

Many times, I’ve had individuals leave my office just so completely satisfied with what I’ve given them – forms, information, or just tools so they can deal with the situation on their own, so they don’t have to spend the money on legal fees. Instead they can use that money and pay the creditor, for instance, to deal with the situation. Again, they may not turn into clients that pay, but they are the most satisfactory and the most successful stories.

It all relates to the fact that when you give individuals the tools to deal with problems on their own, I think it helps the legal community as a whole: Maybe, I’m keeping them out of Contra Costa County Superior Court, maybe I’m keeping them out of Judge Mill’s court room maybe I’m keeping them out of Judge Baskin’s court room, so they don’t have to deal with these issues, because I gave them the tools to deal with it on their own.

 

How long have you been a member of our Lawyer Referral & Information Service (LRIS)?

Eric Samuels: For approximately 5 years, which is the exact time that I have been working here, as an associate attorney for David M. Sternberg and Associates. Upon my joining this firm, I signed up for the LRIS.

What motivated you to become a part of the LRIS panel?

Eric Samuels: I was given an opportunity to read about the LRIS, I investigated the services provided to the community, and I felt that the benefits were twofold: First, it would provide me with a great referral source. We felt that the LRIS is a great source of referrals. In addition, it’s a great way to give back to the community – the legal community and the public here in Contra Costa County.

Do a lot of your clients connect with you through LRIS?

Eric Samuels: Not every individual, couple, small business owner I meet with through the LRIS turns into a client. We consider them potential clients. I do meet with a lot of individuals, couples, small business owners from the LRIS – probably 3-5 a week, almost one person every day. But not all of them, of course, turn into clients. I would say that about 30 – 40% of our clients potentially come from the LRIS.

In your experience, what are the benefits of joining the LRIS?

Eric Samuels: It makes me feel good. It makes me feel good to meet with a couple, an individual, a small business owner who has a legal problem, in a setting where money is not an issue. The potential clients have already paid the Bar Association the $30 referral fee and they get 30 minutes of my time with no pressure regarding what it’s going to cost. We then try to identify their legal issue within those 30 minutes.

It simply feels good to actually talk with individuals about their legal problem and then give them a course of action – to give them either a solution or a plan of what they can do to address their legal problem. 99% of the time, when they walk out of my office or the conference room, I have usually addressed their situation satisfactorily. Now I can’t promise I will solve their problem within those 30 minutes, but I give them a course of action, I give them a plan, I let them know that they’re not alone, that there is recourse from whatever legal problem they are facing.

So yes, it’s a great referral source, business-wise, but it also makes you feel good to watch people leave your office satisfied that they have had their problem addressed. It makes me feel like I’m giving back to the community and helping people make good decisions.

 

Our LRIS staff described you as one of the “go-to guy” for real estate –related matters. Are most of your referrals real-estate related, i.e. foreclosures, evictions?

Eric Samuels: As you can imagine, in the past few years foreclosures have been very prominent in our practice. In addition to Real Estate Law, part of our firm also deals with bankruptcy protection. So, we do meet with a lot of people who experience financial distress – facing foreclosure, facing problems with their debt. Those are the areas where we get most of our referrals.

Unlawful detainers, evictions – These are the types of areas where the referral service provides a very valuable service: You’re dealing with people who don’t have a lot of money, they’re facing a serious financial crisis, and they’re potentially facing being kicked out of their home.

In addition, we deal with a lot of cases that involve small claims jurisdiction –obviously,  less than $7,500. As I counsel people, typically attorney fees run quite a bit higher than $7,500 for whatever matter you have. In litigation, the only winners are the lawyers – So unless you have a large dispute, it really makes sense to settle it, or resolve it, or go to small claims.

I do find that I meet with a lot of individuals that have a relatively minor legal problem – minor in the sense that it doesn’t involve a lot of money – but it’s helpful to meet with them, give them advice, let them know how to make a demand letter, for instance, or go to small claims.

Most of the referrals that I’ve been receiving in the last couple of years have been real estate related, dealing with foreclosures or predatory lending type of situations, which can turn into a large case, of course, and then dealing with evictions and small claims type of matters.

In your experience, are there practice areas that benefit more than others from LRIS referrals and the careful screening of the LRIS specialists?

Eric Samuels: The screening is vital and very helpful. It does identify whether there is a time sensitive issue, where you need to file something within a particular time period that requires meeting with a lawyer right away – maybe your response is due to some pleading, maybe you have a statute of limitations issue, maybe you only have a couple of days to do something.

Screening is very important and it happens quite often where I get a call from a LRIS representative, saying that a potential client needs to come in right away, either later that same day or the next morning. Typically, we make time for those types of situations. We understand that time is pressing.

In that sense, screening is very important. In addition, it also allows attorneys such as myself to be somewhat prepared, as best as we can, for the meeting. This is very helpful  going into a meeting with a potential client referred by the LRIS – I’m only giving them 30 minutes of my time, so it’s helpful to already know what the legal issue is, even if it’s just a one-sentence description, letting me know why they’re here, if I need to do a little bit of research, get a code section, get a statute, get some information for the client, etc. Sometimes it’s a matter of filling out forms, so I already have the forms printed out and we can fill them out together.

These are things that help expedite the meeting and make it more efficient. I think that’s very helpful for both the individual coming to see me and myself.

Would you recommend joining the LRIS to young lawyers and lawyers new to this county? Would you say that joining LRIS is a good way to build your practice?

Eric Samuels: Absolutely. 100%. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a huge referral source for our firm. But especially as a new lawyer coming to this county, it allows you to start making connections and business contacts with other attorneys and people in the legal community in Contra Costa County.

Most of all, it helps you keep the flow of your business going. Even if you go a week or two weeks without any of the referrals turning into business, it’s ok: You’re giving back to the community, you’re gaining experience listening to other legal problems, you’re doing some research, you’re providing a service and then you are going to receive referrals that are going to turn into cases.

Filed Under: LRIS

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