Monday, November 24, 2008
State Bar Board Votes Against Searchable Online Directory
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The State Bar Board of Governors voted against a resolution to approve the implementation of a searchable on-line attorney directory in a closed session Friday.
After more than an hour of testimony, the board voted 14-6 to send the proposed “Find A Lawyer” project to an expanded task force to create a design that will incorporate support of lawyer referral services offered by voluntary bar associations, a spokesperson for the State Bar told the MetNews.
The proposed directory would have replaced the existing attorney search function, which only allows for an exact, phonetic search of State Bar records, and which the organization said is its most accessed web service, receiving over 12 million hits annually.
Although the prototype program developed this year created an enhanced search function that would allow users to search by bar number, self-designated areas of practice, zip code, certified specialty or section membership, languages spoken, length of admission, size of firm, and willingness to accept credit cards or new clients, the measure before the board was limited to the issue of whether to allow users to search by registry information already available on the State bar’s website: name, bar number, location, and specialization.
The board did not reach further proposals for self-designated areas of practice and languages spoken to be searchable or for attorney photographs to be displayed and searched by users.
The Executives of California Lawyers Associations, a group representing executives of lawyers’ associations in the state, objected to the project at the meeting Friday on behalf of several local bar associations that operate State Bar-certified lawyer referral services. Representatives from the Los Angeles County, Santa Clara County, Orange County and San Francisco County Bar Associations also spoke in opposition to the proposal.
The proposal was forwarded to the board by a task force appointed by Immediate Past State Bar President Jeffrey Bleich, which included members of the board and Stuart Forsyth, ECLA chair and LACBA executive director.
Chaired by San Francisco attorney Jim Penrod, who has since left the board, the task force’s other members included Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Davis of Los Angeles, Richard Frankel of San Ramon, Paul Kramer of Sacramento and Patty White of Santa Clara.
Forsyth explained that LACBA, which claims to offer the largest and oldest attorney referral service in the United States, objected to the “Find a Lawyer” project because the State Bar’s proposed directory did not offer the same protections as a lawyer referral service
Referral services help the public identify the correct area of practice and provide references to member attorneys with experience in that area or to alternate legal service providers, when appropriate, Forsyth said, adding that they also require attorneys to carry malpractice insurance and not to be involved in the attorney discipline system, and can also remove attorneys for cause.
“These public protection aspects were not appropriately addressed in the original proposal,” Forsyth said.
But State Bar Executive Director Judy Johnson said that the “Find A Lawyer” program did not offer screening or evaluation services because “the basic idea is not to compete with the lawyer referral services or be a substitute for the kind of screening that the lawyer referral services do,” but to merely provide “an alternate way in which a consumer can do research about a lawyer.”
Although Johnson acknowledged that the directory’s name could be misleading, she said it was simply a “catch-all phrase,” to describe it, “like how everyone says Kleenex instead of facial tissue.”
While she maintained that the State Bar has always the lawyer referral services as the best way for a consumer to find an attorney, she explained that not every county in California has a lawyer referral service, and that lawyer referral services do not handle the totality of legal issues that a consumer might have.
“There are only 55,000 attorneys who participate as LRS panel members,” Johnson said, but “there are 220,000 attorneys in California right now, and we’re going to add a few more in a couple of hours when the bar exam results come out.”
Johnson said that the directory was supposed to function as “one-stop shopping to find out as much about a particular lawyer as the particular lawyer wished to post.”
She also said that the program was meant to provide benefits to attorneys to “reach out and educate the public about their services” during a time where “advertising costs are increasing, law firms are collapsing, and attorneys are losing jobs.”
Friday’s meeting, Johnson opined, was to provide the board with an opportunity to “thoroughly hear from the LRS’ what their concerns were,” adding that “their points of view were clearly understood and heard.”
But she suggested the board’s vote was an indication that it “did not want to make any policy decisions about searchability yet,” because there were no presentations by State Bar staff or organizations who have expressed support for the project, which Johnson said include the Young Lawyer’s Board, several sections, and the Board of Legal Specializations.
Johnson also said that State Bar President Holly Fujie will either reconvene the same task force or appoint another task force to continue to work on the design elements to better highlight the value of the lawyer referral services, adding that the earliest point at which the issue could be raised again will be the board’s meeting in March.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company