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Friday, Jun 2, 2023

Local Lawyers Defeat State Plan

By THOM SENZEE Contributing Reporter Local bar associations worked together to defeat the state bar’s proposed attorney referral service, which the local organizations claim would have severely hurt the services they’ve been running for years. The plan was defeated the day after Thanksgiving when the State Bar of California, in a 14-6 vote, reassigned the job of coming up with a new plan that would not offend local bar associations to a special a task force. New plans for its so-called “Find-A-Lawyer” directory are slated for unveiling in March or April of 2009. The San Fernando Valley Bar Association (SFVBA) joined forces with the Los Angeles County Bar Association (LACBA) to oppose the state bar’s plans to launch its service because, officials said, it would have competed directly with their own services. “Yes, we were worried,” said Tamila Jensen, president of SFVBA. Jensen said she, CEO Elizabeth Post, and other officers at bar associations up and down the state feared that if the State Bar of California were to launch a competing service, the smaller organizations would lose a significant part of their revenue streams. SFVBA has counted on its popular attorney referral service to help fund public-service programs for more than a decade. “It is an important part of our revenue stream,” Jensen said. “(The money it generates) has to be kept separate, however, and can’t be used for general purposes only for services for the public.” Furthermore, Jensen said the fact that the compulsory-membership bar that regulates how local, voluntary-membership bars use the money brought in by their referral networks wants to launch a much less-regulated service was “unfair and completely unacceptable.” “They were not going to be as strict on their own Find-a-Lawyer program,” she said. “They were going to allow advertising people could buy ads and even link to their website from it.” State bar officials deny that advertising was part of the proposal, adding that the site is not even planned as an income source, for now. However, Stuart Forsyth, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, said he recalls when he was president of the Executives of California Law Associations (ECLA), a trade organization for regional bar association executives, the state bar presented Find-A-Lawyer as a revenue-generating product. Conversely, the state bar’s rules on attorney referral services warn local bars they risk losing certification of their networks if they engage ” in advertising on behalf of attorneys in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.” Forsyth questioned the need for a state-level referral network when there are already dozens of local services certified by the State Bar of California. “How does this operate for the benefit of the public?” Forsyth asked State Bar governors prior to the vote on whether to launch the service as-is. “Fundamentally, it is self-designated information. And of what value is that to the public?” In fact, Forsyth said, the state bar presented a major threat to the continued viability of referral services operated by associations such as his, with little regard for the impact. But proponents of the state bar’s plan said it did address Forsyth’s, Jensen’s and other local bar officials’ concerns about the impact of Find-A-Lawyer on their referral programs. The solution they proposed was a disclaimer and a link that recommended consumers use their local bar’s lawyer referral service, if it had one. “The proposal was that the first thing you see is a big rectangle box that said ‘the best way to find a lawyer is through your local bar association,'” said Holly Fujie, the state bar’s newly elected president. ” And then one that said if you can’t afford a lawyer, here’s a link to legal aid organizations.” According to Fujie, only after seeing the more prominently displayed options linking to services outside Find-A-Lawyer would visitors to the website see a ” smaller rectangle that says ‘search the state directory.'” Fujie said the only new features the proposal sought to bring online were a search-by-practice-area field and a language option. The rest of the directory is already on the state bar’s website. “But without a way to search by practice and language, it is not very useful,” she said. Apparently, that’s just the way the local bars want it. “There’s no telling without exaggerating or underestimating how much our program would have suffered had governors voted to approve the California State Bar’s Find-A-Lawyer or searchable-online directory idea as presented,” said Rosie Soto, director of public services at SFVBA. Programs funded by her organization’s attorney referral service include a $25,000 donation toward the building of the Children’s Waiting room at the San Fernando Court, the Bankruptcy Self-Help Desk at the Woodland Hills Bankruptcy Court, as well as Valley Cultural Center’s Concerts in the Park, numerous charitable sponsorships, a senior legal-aid program and a modest-means legal-aid program. Nevertheless, Fujie points out that all of the state’s local associations and other nonprofit attorney referral services together represent fewer than 6,000 of California’s 220,000 licensed attorneys. That’s not the point, said LACBA’s Forsyth, who also served in various positions at the state bar for 24 years. “That’s an example of where the state bar is not looking at the right issue,” he said. “What they should be looking at is how many people are served by lawyer referral services. I know ours alone serves 100,000.” Forsyth said it is likely that statewide, local associations serve several million people seeking representation. However, many rural communities have no local bar. LACBA and SFBVA officials say they can see how the state bar has a role to play in those areas. “The other side of the question is not all lawyers want to get clients this way,” Forsyth said. He pointed out that thousands of attorneys work in large firms that do not use referral networks, or practice corporate law, or work for governmental bodies. “Their website doesn’t adequately protect the public interest,” Forsyth said. ” Because it doesn’t vet lawyers for experience, being free of any disciplinary actions, having malpractice insurance, or having previous complaints within the referral service, the way ours do.” On the other hand, State Bar of California President Holly Fujie said local referral networks are onerous in their exclusions, especially against young, first-year attorneys.

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