By Gary Blankenship
A proposal to upgrade the Bar’s Lawyer Referral Service by boosting its online presence is being worked on by the Bar Board of Governors.
Board Technology Committee Chair John Stewart said the Bar is negotiating with Legal.io, a San Francisco-based legal technology company, to design an online platform for the Bar’s referral service. The Program Evaluation Committee has approved entering into negotiations with Legal.io and the Budget Committee will need to review the final agreement.
He also discussed new online guides aimed at helping lawyers cope with technology issues and that the Florida Courts Technology Commission (FCTC) is looking at ways to block electronic filing of court documents by lawyers not in good standing with the Bar.
Stewart said the new referral system would make the Bar competitive with private online companies — which otherwise rate lawyers to provide legal forms for consumers — and are already in the business of matching lawyers with potential clients.
“This would make it a much better member benefit for our members who participate,” said Stewart. “The functionality would be much better so when potential clients come to it online, they will see it in a manner they expect to see these services.
“We think it will lead to more referrals being made to lawyers and, therefore, we think more lawyers will want to participate in the service.”
The Bar’s present referral service can be accessed online, but almost 90 percent of inquiries come via telephone, and while the new platform would try to boost online inquiries, it would also work with Bar referral staff taking inquiries by phone.
The system will also recognize the reality of the current Bar referral service, which operates only in parts of the state where local bar associations do not offer their own referral services, Stewart said, and no change will be made in coverage areas. But at the same time, he said the system should be flexible enough to incorporate those local services if the local bars decide to join.
“The enhancement and modernization of the Bar’s existing LRS service will not have any negative effect on our voluntary bar partners with existing lawyer referral services,” Stewart said. “In fact, we are confident that the improvements to the Bar’s service will increase not only referrals to the participants in the Bar’s service but will also increase the referrals our service makes to our voluntary bar partners with existing services.”
In its proposal to the Bar, Legal.io laid out these goals for its eventual product: “Design an engaging way to attract members of the public who desire referrals to trusted, insured attorneys in Florida. Special emphasis shall be paid to designing a process that the public can easily navigate, with the purpose of creating a user experience that is competitive with well-known [online] lawyer matching services. . . . Build a world where The Florida Bar is the trusted online destination for Floridians to connect with the best attorney for each individual need.”
The company, founded by two lawyers with technology backgrounds, recently completed an online referral system for the New York State Bar and has done smaller referral operations for the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York, the Justin Bridge University of Massachusetts School of Law, and Lawyers for Equal Justice, Inc. It has also designed a find-a-lawyer system for the Iowa State Bar Association and is setting one up for the Nebraska State Bar Association.
Stewart said it will cost about $24,000 to create the system, but the Bar and Legal.io have not agreed on compensation for maintaining the program.
The final contract will come to the board for approval, he said.
In its proposal, Legal.io estimated it would take three to six months to design and test its new online system, working closely with the Bar to guarantee its goals are met. Under that timetable, the new system could be up and running late this year or early next year.
“I think it will be a really fantastic benefit for our members,” Stewart said. “I think we’ll find a lot more members participating in the service.”
On technology guides, Stewart said the Bar’s Standing Committee on Technology has completed an article on cloud computing (see story in the July 1 Bar News) and posted it on the Bar’s Practice Resource Institute page on the Bar’s website. The standing committee is now at work on a series of guides on “our No. 1 issue . . . data security and privacy for lawyers,” he said.
Those will cover security for laptops, cell phones, and tablets; secure electronic communications with clients; hacking threats, and related topics; and will also be posted on the PRI site.
On the filing issue, Stewart said the FCTC asked the Bar about verifying the membership status of lawyers filing through the court system’s statewide e-filing portal and rejecting filings from those who have been suspended or disbarred. He noted when a lawyer first registers for electronic filing, the portal automatically checks Bar records to ensure that attorney is a member in good standing and eligible to practice. But there are no regular checks after that to see if that lawyer has been suspended or disbarred.
Stewart said his committee looked at the problem and decided there was no simple solution. While it is technologically feasible for the portal to check a lawyer’s status with each filing, the difficulty is there may be a minor and easily correctable reason when a lawyer is shown as not in good standing, such as a late annual membership fee payment or a delinquency in reporting CLE credits. Those issues are typically resolved administratively without affecting lawyers’ ability to practice. Rejecting filings from those lawyers could prejudice their clients, he said.
“What the e-portal authority [the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority, which runs the portal] is willing to do is when someone is determined not to be a member in good standing, they will allow the filing, but the attorney and the Bar will get a notification that the Bar does not think them to be a member in good standing and eligible to practice,” Stewart said.
That will be reported to the FCTC at its August 3 meeting in Tallahassee, he said.