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The ceremonial and the day-to-day

By John Van de Kamp
President, State Bar of California

Former attorney general John K. Van de Kamp was sworn in as the 80th president of the State Bar
John Van de Kamp 2004-05 President

What do you do as president of the State Bar? That’s a question I’m frequently asked by lawyers and non-lawyers.

The short answer: It’s a combination of being chairman of the board of governors and the principal public spokesperson for the bar. After watching my predecessors, I made a decision to devote close to full time to the job to try to strike a balance between its policy-making and ceremonial aspects.

The presidency means more than chairing meetings. There are emergency conference calls to resolve issues of the moment. There are section and committee meetings so numerous one can only hope to make spot appearances. There is the Foundation of the State Bar, finding renewed energy under a new executive director, Leslie Hatamiya.

It means going to Sacramento. I met in the capitol last month for three days with our lawyer-legislators, committee chairs and key representatives of the governor’s office.  While it’s still early in the year, the response to the 2005 State Bar was positive from both sides of the aisle. That’s important because the legislature and the governor are the key to our financial health. They have to approve our fee bill.

For four years, dues have remained at $390, $88 less than the fee before the 1997 shutdown. Although inflation has increased day-to-day costs, the bar has held the line in a fiscally responsible manner through good management and under strong pressure from the board of governors. The bar’s staff has been reduced from more than 800 positions before the shutdown to around 550 today.

There are other financial challenges beyond normal inflation. The Client Security Fund (funded by $35 of active dues) reports dwindling reserves in the face of mounting claims. Last year, it took in around $5 million and paid out $7 million. The Lawyer Assistance Program also faces greater funding demands as success brings more calls for service.

Nonetheless, as we approach the legislature, we’re committed to try to keep active dues at the $390-$400 level and to find other sources of revenue to provide adequate funding in 2006 and 2007.

Being president also means hitting the road to visit members. I am already scheduled to meet and talk to the bar associations of Alameda, Santa Clara, Orange, San Diego, Kern, San Luis Obispo and Sonoma counties and have scheduled visits to the Bay Area Law Student Association, the Chancery Club in Los Angeles, the Association of Deputy AGs, the Greenlining Institute, the Eastern Bar of Los Angeles County and even the Dartmouth Lawyers Association (who will be skiing in Heavenly Valley!).

And what do I talk about? Public protection, current bar news and what we hope will soon be an expanded member benefits program, utilizing a service center hotline and expanded insurance offerings. I talk about issues dear to me — access to justice, recognizing those who have made major pro bono contributions, serving as a cheerleader for such programs as the new L.A. Pro Bono Council, and encouraging lawyers to go into schools to talk about the opportunities in the profession, with emphasis on improving diversity, particularly from the African-American and Latino communities.

I do my best to promote local bar associations. They’re the heart and soul of the State Bar. Because of their voluntary nature, they can tackle the big issues in their jurisdictions, while we at the State Bar walk on eggshells as a result of Keller and Brostherhous.

I’m also on the lookout for new ideas. A visit to the ABA meeting in 2004 stimulated an idea that can hardly be classified as revolutionary: the development of a State Bar law student division. Under study now, it could be offered for 2005-06. 

Being president — at least for me — has resulted in a renewal of some interests from my time as attorney general. Last month, at the request of Barry Krisberg of the National Council of Crime and Delinquency, I agreed to chair a conference at Stanford on rehabilitation through the corrections system, a high priority with the governor since only 21 percent of our parolees successfully complete parole.

There is as much on the plate of the president as he or she wants. No matter how great the appetite may be, you can’t do it alone. It didn’t take long to learn that to make the most of a short year, I needed the support of the board of governors and the bar’s executive staff. That’s one reason I’ve tried to balance my time between local visits of a ceremonial nature and time in San Francisco with the central staff, where I’m in the middle of things and provide a push where needed.

Hoping to see you as I move around the state.

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