On the net, we've only just begun

Each month, President James Towery answers questions from members in this column. Please address your questions to: Ask the President, California Bar Journal, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco 94102-4498 or fax to 415/561-8247. This month's question and Towery's response:

QUESTION: What is the State Bar doing to take advantage of the Internet, and what will it do for the average California lawyer?

TOWERY: This is one of the most exciting projects underway at the State Bar: the creation and construction of the bar's own home page on the World Wide Web.

If you haven't visited the home page yet, you should give us a try. Our address is:

1995 was "the year of the Internet." The stock market went crazy over any company with a link to the Internet; the popular media was filled with Internet stories; and the growth of home pages on the Internet, and visits to those home pages, was simply exponential.

According to one reliable survey source (which counts the overall number of registered host computers connected to the Net), from July l994 to July 1995, the number of hosts counted rose from 3.2 million to 6.6 million.

Because many hosts support multiple users, and those in some organizations support hundreds or even thousands of users, most analysts' estimates of total Internet users range from 20 million to 40 million people.

Projections indicate that by the end of the decade, 120 million machines will be connected to the Net, equating to approximately 200 million users.

Technological revolution

The State Bar, appropriately, was caught up in the excitement created by this technological revolution. In May 1995, an informal "online committee," consisting of several bar staffers with a great interest in the Internet, volunteered their time to work toward the goal of giving the State Bar a presence on the Internet.

In July of last year, following my election and with my support, this process accelerated. We established a goal of having the bar's home page operational in time for the Annual Meeting at the end of September.

We perused the home pages of several California law firms and received technical advice from those firms (particularly the Brobeck firm in San Francisco and the Wilson, Sonsini firm in Palo Alto). We retained a well-qualified consultant in Colorado to assist us.

With a concerted push by all involved, the State Bar achieved its goal of establishing the home page by late September. The home page went public at the Annual Meeting, and shortly thereafter, I appointed a special board Internet committee, chaired by our resident journalist, Peter Kaye of San Diego, to provide policy guidance to this effort.

The home page today

At this early juncture, the State Bar's home page is like a giant bulletin board, with a host of information to assist both the public and members of the bar.

The home page includes a general directory (including telephone numbers) of the State Bar and the services it offers. A listing of State Bar publications is also included.

There is information for members, including dues, MCLE requirements, and even the financial audit of the State Bar. There is a separate page for the various entities of the State Bar such as the sections, committees, and Conference of Delegates, with a description of the activities of those entities. The Rules of Professional Conduct are included in their entirety.

The home page also contains news of interest to lawyers. This includes summaries of Board of Governors' meetings, press releases from the bar and information about such subjects as the new limited liability partnerships.

Of particular interest to the public is a listing of lawyer referral services throughout the state. There is information about the mandatory fee arbitration program and about consumer pamphlets published by the bar, plus the full text of the pamphlet "Finding and Working With a Lawyer."

The home page tomorrow

What is most exciting to me is the virtually limitless potential of the home page as a means of communication and providing services to lawyers and to the public.

Take, for example, the California Bar Journal. One of our first major Internet projects is to take the Bar Journal online. Peter Kaye describes it as an electronic newspaper, one that can be updated quickly, and made available instantly to all members of the bar and the public as well.

In the not-too-distant future, the bar's home page will dramatically change the way we communicate. Once we have the capability of inter-activity, sections and committees of the bar will be able to communicate electronically with the members.

Meetings can be held online, eliminating the need for time-consuming travel. Members of the bar will be able to communicate by e-mail with the staff and board members, and responses should be much timelier.

Results of the bar examination will be available online, hopefully this spring. Applicants no longer will have to endure the frustration of trying to get through the crowded telephone lines to find out their bar results. Imagine the ease of registering for MCLE programs online.

On a personal note, I look forward to the day when I can communicate with members online in a chat format.

Watch the Bar Journal for announcements about our first tentative steps in this direction in the next few months.

Only the beginning

There also is tremendous potential in placing the various databases of the bar online. For example, the State Bar now receives more than 200,000 telephone calls a year to our membership records department, simply asking the question of whether a specific person is admitted to practice in California.

This task can be handled much more efficiently by having this information available online. Similarly, the database of public discipline would benefit both the bar and the public if it were online.

The Internet, and specifically the bar's home page, is not a panacea for the communications challenges faced by the bar. Nonetheless, this is a giant step forward in the bar's ability to serve its membership and the public.

No other state bar in the nation is as advanced as ours in utilizing the Internet.

And we have only just begun.