Bar’s Referral Service Idea Sparks Outcry
Mike McKee
November 24, 2008

The California State Bar is going back to the drawing board after a proposal to operate its own “Find a Lawyer” program encountered fierce opposition from lawyer referral services that saw the plan as unnecessary and unfair competition.

State Bar governors voted 14-6 Friday to have a task force that already had exhaustively vetted the idea take yet another stab at finding a way to run the program without offending the nearly 60 referral services operated independently or through local bar associations statewide.

After extensive debate, Richard Rubin, a non-lawyer member of the Board of Governors who heads a San Francisco public affairs accounting firm, said there was sufficient disagreement among the members of the board to conclude that more work obviously needs to be done on the controversial concept.

“That does serve public policy,” he said. “And it does serve the public interest.”

The State Bar had proposed enhancing its own online database — which currently lets consumers search for lawyers by name, bar license and location — with attorneys’ pictures, practice areas and languages. Officials also hoped to give attorneys the opportunity to provide links to their own Web sites.

The “Find a Lawyer” program, according to materials distributed by the State Bar for Friday’s Board of Governors meeting, “is designed as an online attorney directory for consumers searching for California lawyers and other useful legal resources.” It was also viewed as a benefit to attorneys.

But the concept met with resistance from lawyer referral services, which saw the State Bar program as unfair competition from the very agency that regulates them. They also said it could expose the public to unqualified lawyers, unlike those who undergo a rigorous approval process before being allowed on their rosters.

“How does this operate for the benefit of the public?” Stuart Forsyth, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, asked State Bar governors on Friday. “Fundamentally, it is self-designated information. And of what value is that to the public?”

Representatives of eight other legal aid or bar associations — including the Bar Association of San Francisco and the Santa Clara County Bar Association — were on hand Friday to protest the proposal. Many spoke about how much their agencies depend on the revenue from lawyer referral services to remain in existence, and how they are already struggling because of competition from commercial providers and Internet search programs.

Thomas Kuhnle, president of the Santa Clara County Bar Association, told the board that 20 percent of his organization’s gross revenue is derived from its lawyer referral service. James Donato, president of BASF, said it made up 25 percent of his group’s revenue.

“What is going to be the impact?” Donato said. “I don’t know. But you ought to keep in mind … that we will be losing our income from our lawyer referral services.”

Tiela Chalmers, executive director of San Francisco’s Volunteer Legal Services Program, predicted a loss of $100,000 per year. She said she would have to cut 2 1/2 employee positions, “and that means not serving somewhere around 400 clients.”
Chalmers and others suggested that the State Bar limit its program to rural areas where there are few, if any, lawyer referral services. According to the State Bar, most are located in urban coastal areas.

A few State Bar governors were skeptical about the lawyer referral services’ complaints, noting that there are only about 5,500 attorneys on their rosters statewide. The State Bar, they argued, would be filling a need.>/p>

Other governors weren’t impressed with the services’ standards that keep lawyers off their lists if they don’t carry malpractice insurance and, in most cases, if they’re newly out of law school.

The latter standard bothered San Francisco attorney Micha Liberty, the board’s representative from the California Young Lawyers Association. The Andrus Liberty & Anderson partner thought it wasn’t right to rule out attorneys that the State Bar deems fit to practice law.

State Bar officials hoped they had satisfied the lawyer referral services by adding a disclaimer on the proposed Web site that referred the public to them, saying that lawyer referral services were the best choice. But service representatives said that was choppy logic at best and that, while that might work, it also might not.

“Why take the risk that it’s not?” Forsyth asked.

At one point, State Bar Gov. Bonnie Dumanis, the district attorney of San Diego County, took a rousing stand against the State Bar’s plan altogether. “Ultimately, we are alienating the very people we rely on,” she said. “In balance, there’s really no need to go forward. If we are having this much discussion over a program that I think has little benefit to the public, I don’t think we should proceed” with the plan.

When it appeared that the board was leaning toward sending the proposal back to the task force for further review, State Bar Executive Director Judy Johnson, a big backer of the program, pleaded with the governors to give some strong direction.
“If you want the database to be searchable by language and practice areas,” she said, “you basically need to make a decision on searchability. Otherwise, what is the task force going to do?”

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