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Midterm report card offers a twofer

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

A backwater? Unnecessary? Rife with conflict? What follows is my report on our progress this year to make the State Bar more relevant to our members.

One of the reasons I ran for the board (unopposed) was a sense that it was important to bring back the bar’s relevance to lawyers. No longer were big firms supporting the bar. The reasons advanced have been disinterest and a greater focus on billable hours and the almighty dollar.

I have seen a subtle shift in the last three years. Races for the board appear to be more competitive; attorneys from big firms as well as from other areas of the bar have put their hats in the ring. That’s important because the board should be representative of the diversity in the bar, not just racial, ethnic, sex and sexual orientation diversity, but the diversity that comes from big firms, middle-sized firms, solo practitioners and private and public lawyers.

When we achieve the balance that comes from representation from all segments of the bar, the board will be in a better position to meet its public responsibilities and the needs of its members, as well as communicating with its constituencies.

At a good roundtable meeting in San Francisco last month, I was asked why should we have an integrated bar. One answer: Our members support it. In an advisory election conducted in 1996 as to whether we should continue to have a mandatory bar, two-thirds who voted answered yes. (Caveat: Only 51 percent of the members responded to the question, “Should the State Bar of California be abolished?”)

There are good arguments for continuing an integrated bar.

First: The bar has done a good job in running a good, independent public protection program balanced by the due process protections respondent attorneys deserve. Not that it’s perfect. But it has recently been strengthened by the addition of the Lawyer Assistance Program, started in 2002, for those with alcoholism, substance abuse and mental health problems — the type of problems that usually lead to discipline issues.

I challenge anyone to find a better overall professional discipline system in the state. Robert Fellmeth, who worked with me in 1986 as my appointed State Bar monitor at a time when the bar’s discipline system was under siege, is an administrative law expert who has studied other discipline systems. He says today’s California State Bar discipline program is the most independent discipline operation in the country and is structured more professionally and effectively than other regulatory systems in the state. He makes special note of the State Bar Court’s independence and the professionalism of our chief trial counsel’s operation, which puts its attorneys and investigators under the same roof.

There’s an old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The discipline system is not broken. While I expect Scott Drexel, our new chief trial counsel, to make some changes in his management of the system, a transfer of discipline to a state agency would downgrade the importance of the effort and, after years of staff and process development, could be devastating. Should that ever occur, our members would still be expected to foot the bill.

Second: The other key programs run by the bar are well run.

Admissions continues to administer the most comprehensive and challenging bar exam in the country and works closely with the Commit-tee of Bar Examiners.

The Client Security Fund, funded from a $35 assessment that’s part of the annual $390 bar fee, is essentially a public protection measure that provides some restitution for the actions of the small number of miscreants among us who rip off their clients and give us a bad name. It serves us well.

Only about 20 percent of the bar’s general fund support goes to other areas — membership services, the Commission on Judicial Nominations Evaluation (JNE), access to justice program administration and general administration, to name but a few. Section administration, the provision of technical and substantive expertise to the legislature, elimination of bias and programs that do not fall within the regulation of our members or access to justice are funded through voluntary contributions.

What’s missing here? Direct benefits to members.

A letter from the State Bar is met with trepidation. Looks like trouble.

The State Bar is primarily a regulatory body and, given the limitations placed on it by the Keller and Brosterhous cases, cannot be a free swinging organization, taking public policy positions on every issue that comes down the pike.

But what the State Bar can do is offer its members access to benefits that derive from our 200,000-member list, benefits that are relevant and better than those available in the general market place. It’s called buying power, and it makes the State Bar more attractive, particularly to insurance providers, than smaller entities. That is why the bar’s insurance committees have labored to bring to our members insurance products beneficial to them.

In April, the board of governors approved a new broker, Marsh Affinity Group, to develop new Life and AD&D programs for State Bar members and their families that are expected to be better than those offered in the general marketplace. The board also gave the go-ahead last month to negotiate an agreement with Liberty Mutual as a provider of personal lines of insurance, home and auto, that will soon be available.

Our group insurance committee has made it clear that in both instances, the policies offered to our members should be super-competitive. These programs will benefit all of our members, whether active or inactive. For the inactive members, the benefits realized by those who use the programs should more than offset the cost of their annual bar fees.

By mid-summer, a one-stop member call center will be fully operational, thanks to dollars earned by our insurance programs.

So at last we have a twofer — better insurance programs for our members and a better communications link to our members.

You’ll hear more about the specifics soon. While you may opt out of receipt of marketing mailings approved by the bar, I suggest that it will be in your best interests to see and evaluate what is offered. And, if you have opted out (as is your right), you may want to reverse that by contacting memrec@calbar.ca.gov.

When we say we’re here to help you, we mean it. No subterfuge here.

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