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Board reaches compromise on lawyer search

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

The State Bar will create an online “Find A Lawyer” program for the public after a divided board of governors approved the project last month. But if a consumer is getting a divorce, wants to have a will drafted or has any other problem needing a legal solution, the program may not help — the board refused to allow searches by practice area.

In addition to information already available on the bar’s Web site — every California lawyer’s name, address, phone number and educational background — visitors to the site will be able to search by languages spoken, see a lawyer’s picture and his or her address displayed on a map, and link to an attorney’s Web site.

But practice area will not be displayed.

Jeannine English

“That’s the only part that’s user-friendly,” objected public member Jeannine English, who urged the board to dump the whole project. “I don’t know why we’re trying to hide this from the public. It’s hypocritical to not allow the public to search by practice area.”

“If we’re going to do a half-assed version, we shouldn’t do it at all,” agreed George Davis, another public member.

Although English and Davis were joined by two others in trying to throw out the program, the rest of the board refused to go along.

Find A Lawyer has been in the works for a year, but ran into opposition from local bar associations, who feared it would compete with their lawyer referral services. Executives of California Lawyers’ Associations (ECLA), a group representing bar associations, also objected to a searchable online directory. A task force made up of board members and representatives of local bars could not reach consensus.

The sticking point was self-designated specialty, which raised public protection red flags, said Tom Kuhnle, past president of the Santa Clara County Bar Association and a task force member. He argued that permitting a lawyer to declare himself an expert on the State Bar’s Web site confers some credibility and gives the appearance that the bar endorses that assertion. Disclaimers saying the bar has not vetted the lawyers’ claims are not good enough, he added.

In addition, Kuhnle said a searchable directory meets the definition of a lawyer referral service, but Find A Lawyer would not meet some LRS requirements, including an obligation that panel members carry malpractice insurance. “We’ll have an LRS that doesn’t follow the rules,” he said.

He also said the availability of practice areas could allow commercial vendors to harvest information about lawyers and develop a database of customers, “something our members don’t want.”

But John Hodson, chair of the bar’s Family Law Section, said without a searchable practice area, Find A Lawyer will be worthless. He called public protection arguments “nonsense,” pointing out that many consumers now find lawyers through the Yellow Pages. He accused the LRSs, with just 5,100 members statewide, of trying to protect their financial interest and said diverting potential clients to an LRS rather than a list including practice areas is indefensible. “It’s silly to think people shouldn’t be able to look (at practice areas). It’s insulting to suggest the State Bar abrogates its duties and leaves the public unprotected.

“You’d think this concept is going to refer people to 160,000 John Dillingers out there.”

Some board members saw the proposal as a good member service and viewed it as a compromise that also allows the bar to preserve good relations with local bars. Several, including San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who represents District 9, said they believe allowing lawyers to designate an area of practice would be detrimental to public protection and could harm the public.

Richard Frankel, representing Contra Costa County, objected to the entire concept, arguing that “the State Bar has no business in Find A Lawyer. That’s not our mission. This isn’t what we do for a living.”

And John Peterson of Fresno said there is no evidence Find A Lawyer would harm LRSs’ financial interests. Emphasizing that lawyers self-identify in the Yellow Pages and other attorney listings, he said, “It’s absolutely silly to have a search engine that doesn’t include practice areas.”

After lengthy debate, the board approved Find A Lawyer, without the practice area component, by an 11-8 vote. Acknowledging the nature of the compromise, Los Angeles governor Howard Miller said, “It’s worth giving up searchability at this stage. This is Version 1.0. It’s a beginning, not the end.”

In other action, the board:

  • Increased bar exam and other admissions fees for would-be lawyers. The fee for general applicants will rise next year to $556 from the current $529 fee, and will increase to $584 in 2011 and $614 in 2012. Fees for attorney applicants will go from the current $769 to $808 in 2010, $849 in 2011 and $892 in 2012.

    In addition, fees for registration, laptop use and moral character determination will rise over the next three years.

  • Authorized forwarding to the Supreme Court the names of lawyers who have not paid their annual dues by June 30. Those who don’t pay face suspension. As of last month, 5,334 active and inactive lawyers had not paid their dues.

    In addition, just under 2,400 lawyers had not met their MCLE requirements, and if not completed by June 30, they will be placed on administrative inactive status.

    The numbers of both groups are expected to drop by the deadline. Typically, about 1 percent of the total membership does not pay their dues and about 1 percent of those who must complete continuing education requirements do not do so.

  • Approved a series of steps to increase the availability of limited scope representation, particularly for people of modest means who do not qualify for free legal assistance.

    The resolution encourages: the bar’s sections to develop educational programs for their members; law schools to promote limited scope work in their clinics; lawyer referral services to expand subject matter panels to include limited scope representation; and insurance carriers to endorse limited scope representation as part of the normal practice of law.

    The courts also would be included in a coordinated education strategy.
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