West of Phoenix on Friday, an emu was loose on the interstate. Fortunately for the wingless relation of the ostrich, thanks to a state agricultural official’s lasso, troopers were able to corral the gregarious ratite without injury to bird or motorists.
Coincidentally, the same day something else was loose at the State Bar of Arizona —- folly. But unfortunately for lawyers forced to join to earn a lawyer’s living, there was no lassoing the Bar’s latest imprudent expenditure of mandatory member monies.
By a vote of 15 to 4, the Arizona Bar’s board of governors kowtowed to the glib nostrums of the Bar CEO and especially, the vehement urgings of its immediate past president. Exhorted to vote in favor so the expenditure could be included in the 2017 budget, the latter further warned “the train had left the station” if they didn’t approve a new online lawyer referral platform masquerading as a “Public Service Center.”
Forget the reference to the 19th century technology locomotive out of the same mouth extolling a supposed innovation. And ignore the inconvenient fact the new program preserves the status quo. The Bar remains atavistic middleman preserving its self-governance privilege to protect — not disrupt its economic cartel.
The proposal was ramrodded through with the understanding that specific details and funding could be modified after the proposal was further studied and submitted to the membership for their comments. Good luck unringing that bell.
So much for due diligence. Act in haste, repent at leisure, especially when it’s not your money.
Don’t call it uberization.
The online lawyer referral was demoed by the third-party provider, “Legal Services Link, LLC,” who touted it as in step with the uberization of services to consumers. That’s rich since it’s lawyers and their guilds who keep “fighting uberization of the law.” Moreover, as presented, the technology neither disrupts the market or lowers consumer costs. What it does do is expand the Bar’s bureaucracy, grow overhead, and ultimately increase member costs with no choice but to pony up.
Ironically, this online lawyer referral platform a.k.a the Public Service Center is being sold as a way to purportedly enhance “access to justice” by supposedly making it easier for the public to hire lawyers and secondarily, for the indigent to find pro bono legal help. The Bar CEO even proclaimed the platform would provide “a safe harbor“ for lawyers and consumers. Of course when pressed, the third-party provider and the CEO both walked back that breathtaking assurance by disclaiming any liability — as though lawyer users would expect a modicum of disciplinary liability cover or consumers would be assured of always competent, ethical legal services.
No, the $300,000 Center allegedly helps fulfill the latest state supreme court-ordered iteration of the Bar’s mission. The new mission effective 1/1/17 includes “enhancing the administration of and access to justice.” In truth, though, this expensive new initiative does more to promote ‘access to lawyers’ than ‘access to justice.’
And save for allowing the poor with Internet access to post their legal needs, I don’t know how the platform will “move the dial on pro bono” as the CEO pronounced. Who’s kidding who? How exactly does it “increase and incentivize pro bono” as he also proclaimed? Hold your breath for details.
Persons seeking legal assistance complete an online form stating their legal needs to create a “legal project.” This enables Arizona lawyer participants to review the paid or pro bono project. If interested, they then disclose their profiles, fees (if applicable) and other relevant information to the would-be client.
The Bar thinks its online referral platform will generate $120,000 in revenues to help defray the $300,000 annual hit to its budget. This must mean that in addition to paying for it with existing mandatory membership funds, the Bar plans on charging participants an additional fee.
Fear and loathing.
I attended the board meeting to inform myself and to comment as warranted. But in a testament to the bar’s continued opacity and its abiding aversion to dissent, the board president allowed just two minutes of public comment before not after the proposal was presented. Is there any wonder there’s so much fear and loathing of the Bar?
A representative of the local county voluntary bar association was given the same short shrift to comment without any proposal details in advance. Understandably, the local county association is concerned since it runs its own lawyer referral service, which now appears under threat from the Bar’s competing program.
Board members discover fire.
As a side note, I was surprised some board members appeared so impressed by the third-party presentation. You’d have thought they’d just witnessed the discovery of fire. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the digital marketplace has been offering similar consumer to lawyer matching services for sometime.
As a matter of fact, one wonders why the Bar apparently singled-sourced a provider instead of making requests for proposals. Other competing providers include, for example, Axiom, LawDingo, Lawyer.com, Legal Match, UpCounsel, LegalZoom, and RocketLawyer. The latter even had a short-lived pilot partnership with the ABA until all hell broke loose from protectionist forces.
And as a final side note, it was just a few years ago that the Bar invested significant sums of member monies to upgrade its website and online “Find a Lawyer” directory. Now it means to replace its online member directory via a third-party provider. So much for the return on that earlier investment.
And interestingly but hardly surprising was the added disclosure that the Public Service Center and its two new employees will be part of the Bar’s government affairs group. This is the legislative advocacy department that monitors the Bar’s legislative priorities. This makes perfect sense, given the comments of several board members.
It’s fair to say the Public Service Center is primarily a public relations gambit — a tool intended to serve and protect the Bar’s bureaucratic hide from further threatened reforms from the state legislature. As one board member put it, the Public Service Center will enable the Bar to trumpet to the legislature how much ‘good’ it’s doing for the public.
Despite that, the conflicted regulator/trade association Bar will nevertheless face a challenge. How will it square a trade association lawyer referral “access to justice” service generating business for lawyers with any regulatory semblance of public protection?