California Lawyers Association: Separating the Fun From the Dysfunctional

It is still news to many lawyers, even to a number of lawyers who attended a reception at San Diego’s Hotel Republic this week to help kick off the new California Lawyers Association (CLA).  The fact of that the State Bar of California has spun off its trade association function to a voluntary lawyers organization, principally composed of the former State Bar sections, groups of lawyers who practice in similar areas of law,  and some other functions,  and the California Young Lawyers Association, has not sunk in deeply.  That itself is telling about the current Balkanized state of the legal profession, with almost everybody, ethics lawyers included, deeply occupied with their own particular bubble (ethics lawyers of course deal other lawyers’ bubbles on a daily basis.)  We have come a long way from 1927, when the “unified bar” was an accurate descriptor, with consequences both good and bad.   The legislation creating the CLA created a the largest bar association in the United States, with 100,000 members, literally overnight when it became effective January 1.

The now misnamed State Bar of California is  left to struggle  with performing its government regulatory function under its exclusive role as a consumer protection agency.  One axis of State Bar dysfunction– trade association v. government agency– has been dealt with.  The other axis — Legislature v. Supreme Court– continues, although the successful  enactment of  Senate Bill 36 after earlier efforts failed, bespeaks a level of communication between the Legislature and Supreme Court that is encouraging.  The relatively smooth revision and enactment of the new Rules of Professional Conduct after the fiasco regarding the first attempt to revise the rules in this century.

Tonight we’re going to party like its 1927!

But big problems remain. The Office of Chief Trial Counsel has just gone through a painful restructuring only to lose its newly chosen Chief Trial Counsel for reasons that are not clear.  Adequate funding for the Client Security Fund remains an issue, to the point where the State Bar is considering actually enforcing a 25 year old law allowing it to recommend monetary sanctions in discipline matters.  Questions hover over the future of the Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP), mandated by statute (Bus. & Prof. Code sections 6230 et seq.), but viewed by some as a little too beneficial to lawyers to be part of the new regulatory mindset, at least outside its discipline side corollary, the Alternative Discipline Program.  Current problems can’t escape the shadow of 30+ years of State Bar dysfunction, even now that the trade association functions are not in the mix.

The CLA offers the promise of holding on something of the old State Bar that was not concerned with often dismal work of regulation.  It is planning an annual meeting in September 2018 that will include receptions and activities formerly conducted at State Bar annual meetings.  Those of us (like me) that enjoyed the camaraderie and fun of those meetings can participate but at a price.  Will CLA entice enough lawyers to make the voluntary commitment necessary to hold on to these associative activities?  Local bar associations have long feared that a statewide bar association would suck up too much of the oxygen fueling the volunteer spirit, oxygen that seems to be running out as younger lawyers don’t participate in voluntary associations as much as they used to.  CLA is off to a good start in the high caliber personnel who are helping to get the new organization off the ground.  But its ultimate success is in the hands of California lawyers who can participate or sit out the fun as they see fit.


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