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.


Waiting for Godot? No, just for the revised Rules of Professional Conduct

 On November 2, 2017, the California Supreme Court approved new revised Rule of Professional Conduct 5-110, the first new Rule from the Second State Bar Commission for the Rules of Professional Conduct (RRC-2.) This was the Rule that the Supreme Court suggested be considered for “fast-track” consideration in early 2015.

The “fast-track” was not without speed bumps.  After an extensive writing process by RRC-2, including participation by a liaison from the Supreme Court, and two rounds of public comment, the Supreme Court returned the Rule for further consideration earlier this year.  Now, 30 months after the suggestion of fast-tracking, the new Rule, substantially similar to ABA Model Rule 3.8, is ready for implementation.

Following in its wake are more than 100 other new revised Rules of Professional Conduct, submitted to Supreme Court in March 2017.  And some in California’s legal ethics community are starting to wonder.

The previous experience of the first Rules Revision Committee (RRC-1) looms large.  Between 2001 and 2009,  RRC-1 went through an exhaustive process to generate a new set of revised Rules of Professional Conduct largely based (like the current Revised Rules) on the ABA Model Rules.  Those Rules were approved by the State Bar and fitfully transmitted to the Supreme Court, where they languished until being rejected by the high court in 2014.

The participation of a Supreme Court liaison in the current process raised hopes that the current set of Rules would be speedily approved by the Court.  Now, it looks like the Court will engage in a painstaking review process of its own that will probably take years, and could, conceivably, rejected as well.

So, we wait and wonder if the California will ever join the rest of the United States and adopt some version of the Model Rules.

Will Impaired Attorneys Lose In State Bar’s Shifting Priorities?

Senate Bill 36, our current State Bar fee bill, seems to be coasting to passage in the Assembly and the Governor’s signature.  It makes a number of significant changes to the governing structure of the State Bar that many (including me) have thought were overdue, including eliminating elected attorney trustees,  replacing the office of State Bar President with an appointed chairperson and vice chairperson and, perhaps most significant of all, spinning off the State Bar sections into something called the Association (not to the confused with the hitmakers of the ’60s.)  The kinds of changes that would be consistent with an organization slowly metamorphosizing from an unwieldy and confused hybrid of public and private to a pure governmental agency.   Ultimately these changes will pay off.  But part of how big they pay off depends on California lawyers react to a State Bar that no longer acts as their trade association in any particulars.

The fate of the State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program and its related diversion program in State Bar Court, the Alternative Discipline Program underline that challenges.  And SB 36 underlines that underline with a last minute amendment to the bill that passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee on July 18, 2017, making this change to Bus.  & Prof. Code section 6140.9:

 Monies for the support of the program established pursuant to Article 15 (commencing with Section 6230) and related programs approved by the committee established pursuant to Section 6231 shall be paid in whole or part by a fee of ten dollars ($10) per active member per year, and by a fee of five dollars ($5) per inactive member per year. The board may seek alternative sources for funding the program. To the extent that funds from alternative sources are obtained and used for the support of the program, and provided that at least ten dollars ($10) per active member and five dollars ($5) per inactive member is available for support of the program each year, funds provided by the fee established by this section may be applied to the costs of State Bar general fund programs. Any excess funds not needed to support the program, including reserve funds, may be transferred to fund the Client Security Fund established pursuant to Section 6140.5, provided there are sufficient funds available to fully support the program.
Section 6230 et seq. is the Attorney Diversion and Assistance Act, a law passed in 2001 that mandates that the State Bar do something about the big problem of substance abuse and mental health in the legal profession, a long standing problem that recently caught the attention of the mainstream press with the shocking pronouncement that 1 in 5 lawyers has a drinking problem.   Under the auspices of the Act, a $10 fee was levied on the active members of the State Bar ($5 for inactive members) to run the State Bar Lawyer Assistance Program, as stand-alone program to help all California lawyers and as an adjunct to State Bar Court’s Alternative Discipline Program, meant to incentivize lawyers facing discipline with  substance abuse and mental health issues to seek treatment.
The significant and troubling amendment to section 6140.9 authorizes the State Bar Board of Trustees to do the thing that it was taken to task for a few months ago for doing:  taking money for LAP and putting it into the Client Security Fund (CSF).  CSF is another program that California lawyers pay into, $40 a year, to reimburse clients who have been ripped off by their attorneys.   All that is needed is a determination that there are funds in excess of what is “sufficient” to run LAP and ADP.
Despite the Attorney Diversion and Assistance Act, there is uncertainty over whether the Lawyers Assistance Program belongs in the new enforcement-focused State Bar.   Even though the consensus is that substance abuse is a major problem in the profession,  LAP probably seems to some to be a little too lawyer-friendly to be run by a police agency.  The proposed amendment to section 6140.9 may the first move to get the State Bar completely out of the rehabilitation business. But if not the State Bar of California,  then who?
SB 36 creates a wholly new organization, the vaguely named Association, although the original name before amendment was the California Bar Sections Association.  The reasons for the name change is not apparent, but one could speculate that the prior name might be deemed too restrictive of an organization that could grow into a true bar association with programs beyond the mandated education mission set forth the legislation.   Might LAP find a home in the Association?
The answer will depend on whether California attorneys step up and support the Association with their voluntary contributions.  It will also depend on whether leaders within the Association perceive an opportunity to be of service to the bar beyond the valuable services the Sections have always provided.  If there is a worthier cause than the sickness in our profession, I don’t know what it would be.

“if a river swell beyond its banks, it loseth its own channel


Today I celebrate 30 years since my admission to the State Bar of California.

Like every year, I will celebrate this anniversary by re-reading Hoffman’s “Fifty Resolutions in Regard to Professional Deportment”,  which is actually the resolution #50.  By this act I will consecrate myself for yet another year bearing the heavy office of attorney and counselor at law.

Hoffman may be old (1836) but he never goes out of style.  As I prepare for my new gig teaching professional responsibility, I don’t know that our current rules of professional responsibility represent that much of an improvement.  So I commend them to you.


The Supreme Court’s Sensible Shoes

The California Supreme Court has issued its order in response to the State Bar of California’s request for a special assessment of fees.  The Court predictably resisted the State Bar’s request for funding functions that have not directly related to the core mission of discipline.  They did not rule out granting that request under some different set of circumstances, but “in light of the particular set of circumstances facing the State Bar in 2017” such an order was not justified.  The Court encouraged the State Bar to seek “appropriate funding sources apart from the special assessment” to support the non-discipline programs of the State Bar that support public protection, such as the Commission of Judicial Nominees Evaluation, the Center on  Access to Justice, and the California Commission on Access to Justice.  In other words, the Legislature.


Any hopes that the Supreme Court would step out of its historically deferential role to the Legislature in State Bar matters were firmly dashed.  The Supreme Court will not step into the role of the permanent funder of the State Bar; it will only act when the Legislature fails to.  This decision exactly follows the path laid down in 1998, right down to appointing Justice Lui to act as special master to oversee the strict application of the funds to discipline functions.  Here there more than a whiff of distrust that the State Bar can order its finances, distrust that certainly seems justified given the recent history money games at the State Bar, including the funds raided to the pay for the Los Angeles building and the questionable diversion of funds from the Lawyer Assistance Program to the Client Security Fund.

Now the spotlight turns again to the Legislature to address the long-term issues facing the State Bar, including whether all its various functions would be better discharged if not under the same roof.    In the meantime, we have a cautious decision from the Supreme Court that maintains the status quo.


State Bar Money Games Continue

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce–   Karl Marx

On October 17, 2016, the California Supreme Court appointed Justice Elwood Lui to serve as Special Master in evaluating the request filed by the State Bar of California for an order assessing fees against the members of the State Bar to fund the operations of the State Bar disciplinary system.  Justice Lui is well-qualified for the job, having previously served as Special Master when the Supreme Court ordered the first, and so far, only special assessment,by the Supreme Court, in its 1998 decision In Re Attorney Discipline System.   His appointment does not bode well for the expansive request filed by the State Bar on September 30, 2016.

In that request, the State Bar sought an order funding not only the essential components of the discipline system that were funded in 1998 — the disciplinary prosecutor (the Office of Chief Trial Counsel), the adjudication arm (the State Bar Court) and the office supporting professional competence.  Instead, it sought an order funding all that and more,  State Bar organs that have little or no direct relationship with the discipline system, such as the California Young Lawyers Association, the Center on Access to Justice, the California Commission on Access to Justice, and the Office of Communication.  Moreover, hidden in depths of the 300 pages of appendices supporting the request (but not made public on the State Bar’s website) were a number of questionable expenditures.

Most of us might not have known about these questionable expenditures but for the response filed by Prof.  Robert Fellmeth and the Center for Public Interest Law (CPIL)on October 11, 2016.  More deja vu: Prof.  Fellmeth served as the appointed discipline monitor between 1987 and 1991, when the current discipline system was created.  A brief excerpt from CPIL’s response illuminates the sloppiness of the State Bar’s request:

Even a rudimentary attempt to trace the sources of the Bar’s figures raises some serious red flags. In Table 3 of Appendix F, for example, the Bar states that the total cost of the above-described core disciplinary offices in 2016 was $64,438,000 – but that figure includes $20,779,700 in “Indirect Costs” (32% of the total cost) that are nowhere itemized so the reader can be assured that those indirect costs were properly attributable to those disciplinary units.

Most disturbingly, a portion of these indirect costs – which have been allocated to the core discipline functions and are presumably a part of the Bar’s current Request before the Court – includes $56,300 in expenses for Board of Trustees elections! See Appendix F at page 6, footnote 10; Appendix C- expenditure detail at Cost Center 10005.

Moreover, the Executive Director / Board of Trustees budgets – which are also allocated proportionately to the disciplinary functions under the Bar’s “cost allocation plan” even though they have little impact on the discipline system outside of nominating and appointing the Chief Trial Counsel – include significant and completely unnecessary costs such as an annual $44,500 catering budget for the Board of Trustees, and a $7,400 catering budget for the Executive Director alone. See Appendix F at pages 5-6; and Appendix C (expenditure detail for Cost Centers 10001, 10003)

CPIL’s Amicus Curiae letter dated October 11, 2016, page 6.  The letter goes on to note that no other government agency pays for catering, not even coffee.  Instead, employees are reimbursed for meals taken on duty according to established schedule.  And, of  course, they don’t have elections.

But it is more than sloppiness.  The corporate culture of the State Bar still hasn’t wrapped its head around the fact that it is not a bar association but a government consumer protection agency.   Thus, the rather sudden, transparent  and entirely unconvincing  effort to re-define “public protection” so broadly as to include everything the State Bar does (“Jeepers Creepers.“)

And it never will.   That is why disunification, total or limited by moving the discipline function to a new agency, is absolutely essential.

I finally caught up with Professor Richard Abel’s excellent book “Lawyers On Trial: Understanding Ethical Misconduct.”  Chapter 1 provides a very comprehensive look at lawyer regulation over the last century and its peculiar history in California.  The roots of the dysfunction go far back, much farther back than the 30 years that I am personally familiar with, even to the turn of the last century.   Everything that we are debating now has  been debated before, many, many times.  It won’t be changed by a change in management or even a change in governing structure.

In 1998, California experienced a tragedy when the discipline system shut down after Gov. Wilson’s veto of  the dues bill.   A vital part of the justice system simply ceased operating for six months despite the valiant efforts of State Bar President Marc Adelman and others.  It ceased functioning because the State Legislature was tired of the money games played by the State Bar, including the diversion of funds dedicated to hiring discipline personnel  for purposes having nothing to do with discipline.   There was no trust in the State Bar as an institution.  Now 18 years later, we find ourselves repeating history.  This time the tragedy has become farce as the State Bar struggles to  hold on to its schizophrenic nature,  struggles to placate all of its many “stakeholders” even as the real work of public protection embodied in the Office of Chief Trial Counsel and the State Bar Court drifts while funds for elections and catering are earnestly sought.   As Professor Fellmeth notes, if public protection is defined to include everything, then public protection is not prioritized.

The Supreme Court will undoubtedly fund the essential functions of the discipline system with Justice Lui’s very able assistance.  Once that is done, it will be time to move toward giving the discipline system the true priority and focus that it deserves.  That means separating it from the current structure.