The Net potential

Simon Chalton, head of the IBA's computer and database committee and a consultant at London firm Bird & Bird, is adamant about the need for the organisation to get involved with Internet services. "The reality is that the Internet is here and it would be foolish for the IBA to bury its head in the sand," he says.

Early signs indicate that many IBA members are also keen to explore the possibilities of the Net.

Most of the 262 respondents surveyed in 1994 wanted the organisation to draw up concrete recommendations on promoting IBA Internet services. Yet attempts to rally members' support since then have become bogged down.

Another survey, which was carried out last year, asked members to sanction specific facilities which could be offered if the IBA moved on to the Internet. These included:

a Web site providing information about the IBA;

greater public access to IBA information;

the provision of more information about members, including clients, hourly billing rates, gross fees and client assessments of satisfaction;

a system of matching prospective clients with suitable lawyers; and

the creation of a database of non-member providers of legal services.

Setting up a basic web site publicising details of the organisation's activities, publications and membership, and a database of legal information are regarded by IBA members as non-contentious.

Chalton says these facilities will be worked on over the next year. This is a modest move in the right direction but it does not take the organisation much beyond what it already has.

Anything smacking of advertising, such as the provision of enhanced information on members' services, is viewed as highly contentious by respondents. There is a wide range of views on this matter, says Chalton.

Some lawyers, mainly from civil law jurisdictions but also from certain US states, view any attempts by practitioners to market themselves as objectionable, while others, including UK lawyers, see it as perfectly acceptable.

He adds that the former lobby is in the minority "but they hold their views strongly", which makes it likely that the IBA will take a cautious, softly-softly approach to supplying information on the Internet.

"The IBA is unlikely to be at the forefront of developments," says Chalton. He adds that sensitivity to all views is needed in determining how far the organisation can go.

But with advertising restrictions crumbling all over the world, the question remains: how long can a vocal minority continue to act as a brake on the IBA's development of the Internet's potential?

Chalton remains convinced that, while any moves about Internet services will be made cautiously, some form of IBA marketing function will eventually emerge.

Currently, IBA members are being polled on two issues:

whether "the IBA should encourage use of the Internet by members in ways which may assist the marketing of legal services";

whether "making publicly available on the Internet information voluntarily provided by individual members about their personal professional skills, experience and clients is objectionable".

So far the responses are encouraging and Chalton is already working on how to control information supplied by lawyers making claims about expertise and capabilities.

But, until a clearer picture of members' views emerges, such work is largely theoretical.