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Making the bar more user-friendly

By Jeff Bleich
President, State Bar of California

Jeff Bleich
Bleich

One of my goals this year has been to help rebuild trust in the bar, and you can’t build trust unless you acknowledge problems and do things to fix them. In last month’s column, I wrote about some common complaints to the State Bar President and suggested how those complaints can be addressed. That column did not discuss, however, why the State Bar receives as many complaints as it does, or what the bar is doing to become more user-friendly.

To be fair, some complaints about the State Bar are inevitable simply because of what the bar does. The bar is a state agency, and state agencies have to do things that no one likes to have done to them: whether that is being tested, audited, investigated, disciplined or taxed. The State Bar has to do all five.

Because the bar’s job is to ensure that lawyers are qualified to practice in California and behave ethically, it administers a tough test, audits CLE compliance, investigates complaints about lawyers, punishes any violators and charges every lawyer in the state for the cost of running this system.

This is not a way to make friends, and so it is no wonder that the State Bar does not generate the unqualified good will of, say, an ice cream parlor or a wine bar.

But that does not mean all criticisms about the bar are not valid. Some of the bar’s policies need improving, and even the good policies may not always be implemented perfectly.

At the bar’s most recent planning session, we confronted the fact that most attorneys have very few encounters with the State Bar — when they are admitted, when they pay their dues and when they report CLE compliance — and a negative experience in those situations matters, because it colors their entire impression of the bar.

Back in the 1970s, a number of cities discovered that the main reason their citizens disliked the government was not because of poor legislative priorities or laws; it was because everyone had to wait forever at the Department of Motor Vehicles to get their license renewed. The DMV is most people’s only direct contact with their government in a year, so they judge the efficiency, compassion and quality of the government based on that encounter.

The State Bar is no different. When a bar applicant has to wait a long time to get their moral character application approved, or a bar member can’t reach a person to answer their dues bill question, or an inactive lawyer has trouble confirming an address change, or a lawyer can’t tell if he or she has satisfied their CLE requirements, they think less of the bar. If it takes a long time to reach the correct bar officer to get an answer — and the caller is already annoyed before the conversation starts — this only exacerbates the problem.

From the receiving end, it is hard to stay continually upbeat when people are already mad before you even pick up the phone. So we have taken a number of steps to help make the bar more user-friendly, and more changes are on the way.

The Member Services Center

If you call the main switchboard, it will likely take at least a couple of transfers before you reach the person who could actually answer your question. That is infuriating but not surprising.

The main switchboard operator cannot be trained to understand every aspect of the State Bar and to triage each call properly to the exact right person. So explaining your problem to the operator will not help; it may only confuse matters and get you off on the wrong foot.

Instead, the bar has established two efficient ways to get a direct answer to a member question: either log on to www.calbar.ca.gov and hit the Member Services link, or call the Member Services Center at 1-888-800-3400 (toll free). If you call the main switchboard, they will most likely transfer you to the member services office anyway, so calling that number directly will avoid the annoyance of multiple transfers and get your call started right.

The current Web site

The State Bar is currently operating with an out-of-date computer system. The bar’s dues have been frozen at 1997 levels, and that shows in the bar’s technology infrastructure. Nevertheless, the bar has done a good job making due with its antiquated systems.

Many things are now available online that would be slow and cumbersome to do by phone or in a letter. For example, it is easier to pay your bar dues online than it is to write a check and mail it in. Not only is it cheaper (since you don’t have to pay for the stamp), but it is faster and it ensures that your payment is received on time.

You can also change your address, create your own private profile, report MCLE compliance, remove yourself from promotional lists and get forms and information without having to wait on hold and listen to Muzak.

Improving the Web site

The Bar’s Executive Director, Judy Johnson, its head of member services, Starr Babcock, and the Chief Technology Officer, Gary Clarke, are deeply committed to improving the bar’s Web site this year. The scope of that improvement will depend upon whether the legislature approves our request for an increased technology budget. But if that is successful, members of the public and the bar won’t have to worry about having a DMV experience.

Among other things, the new robust Web site may include:

(1) expanding the information available about every lawyer and giving lawyers a way to include information about their background and practices;

(2) the ability to change your status from active to inactive or vice versa and to replace a lost bar card;

(3) links to content-rich materials;

(4) improvements in search functions (so, for example, lawyers who have changed their maiden name can still be found easily on line); and

(5) online real-time customer service.

If you have other suggestions for improving the bar Web site, please send them to Gary Clarke at gary.clarke@calbar.ca.gov and be sure to let your legislator know that you support the bar’s technology improvements.

So while the bar may never be beloved, it is on its way to being better liked, and more responsive. And that’s a start.

• For the record: In last month’s column, I said administrative suspensions of lawyers who don’t pay their dues remain on the Web site for seven years. In fact, it’s at least seven years; expungement happens only if the suspension did not exceed 90 days and the member has an otherwise clean record.

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