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Three are running for bar presidency

Three third-year members of the State Bar Board of Governors announced last month they will seek the presidency of the 210,000-member organization. Vice presidents Ruthe Ashley of Sacramento, Jeffrey Bleich of San Francisco and Marguerite Downing of Los Angeles are vying to succeed current president Sheldon Sloan. The board will make its choice in July.

Two other vice presidents, Jo-Ann Grace of Los Angeles and James Scharf of San Jose, are not running.

In discussing their candidacies, each mentioned the importance of the bar's efforts to diversify the profession, but diverged on where they would place their energies if elected. Ashley would add a focus on building a strong collaboration with the Judicial Council; Bleich said he would try to strengthen the bar's financial condition; and Downing said she would emphasize member services and benefits.

Ashley chaired the so-called Pipeline Initiative, a bar effort to interest young people of different backgrounds and ethnicity in legal careers, and she now acts as a consultant to the Committee on Access and Fairness. If elected, she said, "My initiatives would be to continue the work we've done on the pipeline, to continue and build on a collaboration with the Judicial Council on courthouses and judgeships and also to focus on getting the bar involved in volunteerism." She said she devoted much of the year to a partnership with the bench-bar coalition and collaboration with the legislature and the courts.

Winning the presidency would mean "a year of service to the profession, to the community and to the pipeline," she said.

Ruthe AshleyAshley, 60, recently took a job as the diversity officer for external affairs at the state Public Employees' Retirement System. She and her husband of 37 years, Roger, are the parents of two grown children.

Jeffrey BleichBleich, a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, said his breadth of experience – including big and small firm work, community and public service – would enable him to communicate effectively with the bar's many constituencies and help oversee its diverse functions. "I think the State Bar is going in a very good direction, and I'd like to help it continue with that," Bleich said.

As chair of the bar's planning committee this year, he is well versed on the bar's budget woes. "I think we have to take a hard look at the (recent state) auditor's report and look for efficiencies we need to make and talk to the legislature about some additional support," Bleich said. "We need to make a case to our members to justify the current fees and also that we need to have an increase."

The 46-year-old Bleich, who clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, handles complex litigation at his firm. He also serves as vice chair of the California State University Board of Trustees and is the father of three. "I pride myself on being efficient," he said, while acknowledging he'll have to scale back some of his commitments next year if elected.

Asked why she wants to be bar president, Downing exclaimed, "Why wouldn't I? It's a great job. It's an opportunity to represent my colleagues in a profession that I love and to try to make a difference."

A longtime deputy public defender in the Los Angeles Bauchet office, where she handles central misdemeanor arraignments and serves as a mentor trainer, Downing said she has no particular initiatives in mind, but having read the state auditor's report, "there are some in-house things we need to work on." She also favors some effort to try to improve the image of lawyers, explaining her belief that while the bar has a responsibility to protect the public, "we also have a deep obligation to those who pay their dues and who are attorneys to make the profession better."

Marguerite DowningDowning, 48, chaired a high profile task force to develop civility guidelines this year and presented proposals that currently are being circulated for public comment. But her proudest moment as a bar governor, she said, was when "I got to swear in a lawyer in December who got to (the swearing-in site) late. That was my happy moment."

Downing's extended family includes her husband, two grown children and a 10-year-old daughter.

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