Update (7 pm, 2/19/09) More comments below, with links to additional NC Bar resources and Canada resources too. In response to Eric’s question, the review took place strictly based on websites alone – I personally visited about 30 of them, and delegated the remaining review, then did additional link checks. Talking to bar personnel would have been useful, but too time consuming for this project. However, I have heard from some bar folks – and I welcome comments or complaints.
Update (4:00 pm, 2/19/09) Apparently, the survey has overlooked some of the bar’s important features. In the comments, you will see that the MN bar also offers a site at practicelaw.org – though that is different from the MN Bar site listed in other places. I’ve also received a call from the NH bar that they do offer many services, but due to password protection, they’re inaccessible. Likewise, Wisconsin has an extensive Practice411 site here. I want the table to be inclusive but at the same time, it should not be so difficult to find information. Keep those comments coming, though – I want to make sure that the table is accurate.
It’s been a long, long time coming, but I am finally ready to unveil one of MyShingle’s flagship features, The Bars, Reviewed 2009, a survey of resources for solo and small firm lawyers offered by the 50 state bars, plus the ABA and a handful of city bars. The survey lists bar resources in a variety of categories: law practice management office, solo resources, listserves, IOLTA handbooks, ethics rules, legal research and other features.
Back in 2002, when I first survey, I concluded that the bars were serving the needs of solos and small firm lawyers fairly well. At that time, most bars had a robust web presence (at least for that time period) and offered a variety of online guides and forms to help solos get their practices off the ground. Unfortunately, times have changed, but most bar associations haven’t. In the six years that have transpired between the two surveys, there hasn’t been much progress at the bar sites.True, most of the solo guides remain online, but few have been updated to reflect new developments like outsourcing, social media or software as a service tools.
The most significant change comes in the area of making free legal research available, with 42 bars offering free or reduced legal research, primarily through services like Fast Case, Versuslaw or Casemaker. That’s a substantial increase over the handful of states that offered free or reduced price legal research back in 2002.
Still, legal research benefits represent the extent of the change. In all other respects, the majority of bar sites are woefully stale, untouched by advancements of Web 2.0. As of 2009, there are still bar associations (yes, including the DC Bar, but you probably could have guessed that) that don’t offer listserves, while none of the bars, with the exception of Minnesota and the ABA incorporate any type of social networking tools. The Texas Bar boasts an extensive online video library, but again, it’s minority of one on that front. Not a single bar site that I came across allows readers to follow news updates through RSS feeds, and if the bar associations host blogs, well…except for Minnesota (which has one off site), I couldn’t find them. (To be fair, several law practice management advisors like Jim Calloway (OK), Eric Mazzone (NC), Rodney Dowell (MA) and Nerino Petro (WI) have excellent and informative blogs, particularly on the tech and biz-management issues, but their blogs are not hosted by their respective blogs and I couldn’t even find to links to those blogs on their home bar’s main page).
Finally, there are still some bar associations that do not include guidance on IOLTA rules available on line and even more shocking, which don’t offer access to bar ethics rules and opinions (or in the case of Maryland, inexplicably, make these materials available only to members). Message to the bars: believe it or not, most lawyers actually want to comply with your rules. As we enter the precariously gray ethics area of online advertising and social media and virtual law practice and outsourcing, we actually want to evaluate whether our conduct comports with ethics rules. Making ethics rules available facilitates compliance. Isn’t that what the bars want…or would they rather play gotcha instead?
It’s not just site content that lags behind the time, it’s basics like web design. As a lawyer, I spend a enough time at bar sites that I’ve grown immune to their deficiencies. It took a pair of fresh eyes, in this case, those of virtual assistant Tina Hilton who assisted with this project, to realize just how outdated most bar sites are. Many sites had dead links, lacked basic navigational tools to find materials or didn’t display current information prominently on the front page. Simple design changes like improved navigation bars or spiffed up graphics and color would make a big difference.
As I sit here in 2009, here’s what I don’t understand about the bar associations. They’re funded by member dues and have actual staff and budgets. So why is it that a blog such as mine, which was essentially run as a hobby for five years by a busy solo offers more resources on solo and small firm law practice and legal trends…for free?
So which bars take the prize in this contest? I’m not picking winners this year, but I will give a couple of shout-outs:
Texas Bar, for innovative use of video and extensive online how-to library, Minnesota Bar for experimenting in blogs and social media (even if off the main site), Mississippi for a terrific solo tool kit, Association of the Bar of New York for extensive resources (including a thorough business plan) on starting a law firm, Colorado bar for unique programs like a conciliation panel that helps contentious opposing counsel get along, the DC Bar (for the very limited reason that it has been offering free, monthly programs on starting a practice and NOT for its Avvo insantity) and the ABA for solosez and its attempt at social media with Legally Minded.
All of the links to the site are available in the survey chart here. The chart is a great resource in and of itself, because it will take you directly to resources at bar sites, such as forms, online guides and other materials. Finally, in addition to Tina Hilton, thanks to new solos Kimberly Alderman, Andy Miller, Jennifer Weil and Josh Andrews.
Now it’s your turn to rate me? How did I do with this survey? Do you agree with my conclusions? Did I overlook resources that your bar offers? Please send your comments below or post them directly on the comment section of the guide.