Can bar associations go completely online?

Traditional bar associations, in their never-ending bid to stay relevant to attorneys, are developing strong online presences. They’re becoming hybrids — clicks and mortar organizations.

They’re being joined by “online” bar associations as well, and the changes in the bar association landscape are fascinating to watch.

“I was with the CBA when it had its first e-mail address, its first web page, its first webcast,” says Edmonton lawyer Greg Harding. “I think they’ve embraced the concept of an online bar association, but there are other [offline] things that they continue to do.”

Harding wonders about the extent to which purely online organizations can serve lawyers. “Do online bar associations offer all the things traditional bar associations offer? Do they overlap in certain areas?” asks the partner at Field Law and a member of the Canadian and Edmonton bar associations.

Harding looks to bar associations to play their traditional roles: educating the public, lobbying the government, providing continuing professional development, speaking for the profession and so on.

“I’m not sure to what extent a ‘pure’ online bar association can presently fulfill all of those roles,” he says.

Community

Online associations may thrive in places where traditional ones flounder. “Traditional bar associations have always been Toronto-centric and urban-centric,” says Toronto-based lawyer Omar Ha-Redeye. “Trying to build a community across Canada is challenging,” adds Ha-Redeye, a member of the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers and the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers.

“I understand many rural associations are ‘CBA-like’ in what they’re doing over the web,” Harding adds.

Interjurisdictional issues

The Internet seems a natural place to discuss interjurisdictional issues, which continue to grow in importance across many areas of law.

The Internet Bar Organization (IBO) was founded in 2005, in part to champion the development of effective international law.

“At the time, it was clear a harmonization of rules was needed for the Internet,” says Jeffrey Aresty, president of the IBO. “Global transactions of all kinds were taking place. In a world filled with sovereign rulemaking and not much international lawmaking covering the Internet, few tools for resolving disputes were available.

“We got people together from all over the world who would collaborate with each other and start setting a course for that kind of harmonization.

“We seek the integration of private justice systems that have law as a foundation to create opportunities for folks in other parts of the world to access justice that they don’t have,” Aresty continues. “People there figure out the technology quickly and use it entrepreneurially. They need some sort of justice framework. With business and legal training, they can create the systems themselves.”

For instance, Aresty notes that it’s prohibitively expensive to involve a mediator in small claims disputes, but eBay and PayPal deal with millions of such disputes without resorting to sovereign legal systems.

“Millions of disputes each year are avoided because parties reach their own agreements through structured communications online (using eBay and PayPal),” he says. “You can take that model and grow it into other e-commerce areas so that businesses can begin to sell across borders and get larger-dollar items involved in such sales. This can only happen when there’s trust that if a dispute or issue arises, that there’s going to be some resolution.

“This is the positive side of law. People often perceive law as courts and institutions and the protection of rights. I see law as the creation of rights.”

Continuing professional development

Webcasts, especially ones that contribute to continuing professional development, have proven popular. The IBO’s Future of Justice webinar series reaches around the world, while in Canada even busy downtown lawyers can skip trips to and from CPD events near their offices and eliminate the commute times associated with them.

Harding, a fan of the CBA’s online initiatives, appreciates its online archives of educational materials. The CBA “is adept at using electronic media as part of what they offer to the profession,” he says.

Aresty extols these projects as fantastic for continuing education. “Members of the bar learn about technology by getting involved in projects that are worthy of an international community,” he explains. “They learn about technology in projects, and then incorporate the technology in their practices.”

Aresty, who worked for a time in Toronto, lauds Canada as a forerunner in applying technology to the justice system. “British Columbia is one of the sovereign areas that serves as an example to the rest of the world of how you can use technology in justice systems to resolve real-world conflicts, to reduce the cost of government and dispute resolution, and empower people to resolve disputes themselves,” he says.

“We’re creating more such projects.”

The IBO, in Aresty’s eyes, engages young lawyers more successfully than traditional associations by getting them to work on projects. And through their IBO involvement, young lawyers connect with traditional bar associations. “We bring the two worlds together,” he says.

Networking

Networking and information exchanges happen online and off, in both legal industry settings and more general ones like LinkedIn groups.

Lawyers like Ha-Redeye use the Internet to boost their efforts. “I recently asked a question on Twitter,” he recalls. “The OBA saw the question and retweeted it.” Within five minutes, an OBA member he knows contacted him and he had his answer.

Concerns

Lawyers also need to be aware of the need for confidentiality. Ha-Redeye asking a question via Twitter might raise eyebrows in the legal community. The informality of online forums may keep lawyers from sharing information unless they first redact documents and rid them of metadata.

Perhaps a greater worry (in Ontario at least) is that of civility. Pugnacious attorneys, uncivil in person, might become downright nasty online where people are often harsher and less sympathetic.

This article originally published in Lawyers Weekly. To view the print version of this article, see below.

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