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State Bar celebrates its 80th anniversary

By Kristina Flaherty
Staff Writer

When California’s unified State Bar was launched in 1927, no one predicted it would be easy. “The first year will be a crucial one, for we have no charted course to follow, no precedent to aid us, nor a guiding star other than our ideals and conscience,” Joseph Webb, the first State Bar president, wrote in a 1927 State Bar Journal column. “And as we are sailing upon an uncharted sea,” he warned, “mistakes may be made and there may be criticisms to meet.”

But the early State Bar leaders were determined to “kick the rascals out of the profession,” raise admission standards and work collectively to improve the administration of justice.

Eighty years later, the State Bar — alternately lauded, attacked, misunderstood and closely scrutinized — has seen its ranks swell from roughly 10,000 practicing attorneys to more than 210,000. It investigates more than 3,000 complaints annually in the nation’s only attorney discipline system with a full-time State Bar Court. It administers the bar examination to more than 14,000 prospective attorneys each year. It reimburses funds — about $81 million in 34 years — to attorney theft victims. It distributes lawyer trust account interest — some $250 million so far — to legal programs serving the poor. And with its many committees and sections, it works to improve the administration of justice.

The changes are dramatic. But what’s just as striking — from historical archives and interviews with past leaders — is how much has remained the same. The challenges to the State Bar’s self-regulatory role, for example, resurface again and again.

The State Bar of California was created by the State Bar Act in 1927 to assist the Supreme Court in regulating the legal profession and in improving the administration of justice. The legislature provides oversight by regularly approving — or disapproving — the amount of man-datory dues collected annually from all California attorneys.

From its beginnings, the bar faced numerous challenges to its existence. In 1927, bar leaders had to start from scratch, initially registering some 10,000 attorneys at $3 each. In the first year alone, they appointed local committees to hear client complaints, drafted procedural rules and developed the nation’s first enforceable rules of professional conduct for lawyers. In addition, some 2,500 attorneys were recruited for new “sections” to study five areas — civil procedure; criminal law and procedure; courts and judicial officers; regulatory commissions; and professional conduct — and recommend changes to the legislature.

The unauthorized practice of law by banks and trust companies, court reform, “ambulance chasing,” professional ethics and attorney qualifications were among the topics that dominated the professional debate.

Since its creation, the State Bar has continually developed and revised programs — often with wide input — aimed at improving admissions standards, attorney regulation and the administration of justice. But the ever-changing times, too, have shaped and driven the bar’s evolution.

During World War II, for example, a State Bar “War Work” committee pledged that no one in the armed forces “should suffer loss of personal or property rights . . . for lack of adequate legal advice.” California attorneys handled some 55,000 legal matters free of charge. A State Bar “G.I. Legal Aid” radio series briefed military families on pertinent legal topics. And to the California attorneys serving in the armed forces, the bar sent out surveys to determine their homecoming needs — from offices, to stenographers, to help finding a job.

The events of the so-called McCarthy era in the mid-1950s, too, triggered a State Bar response, this time in defense of the attorney’s duty to represent his or her client. Several California lawyers representing witnesses in House Un-American Activi-ties Committee hearings found themselves accused of being Communists and then ejected for protesting. Board members promptly traveled to the Columbia Broadcasting Studios in Los Angeles to hear the recorded proceedings for themselves, and, in turn, passed a resolution declaring that the rights of a witness to counsel should be protected. It marked the first time that the organized bar in the United States took a sound position against McCarthyism.

Some of the bar’s most vital work has historically received little notice, including its role in developing the Family Law Act, the Civil Discovery Act, and the civil, probate, corporations and tax codes, as well as the Code of Civil Procedure. Bar leaders pushed for court reform as early as the 1940s, and a decade later helped achieve the creation of two lower courts: municipal and justice. The bar laid the groundwork for later trial court coordination and, most recently, court unification.

The issue of public confidence, how to win it and how to keep it, remains another constantly recurring topic among State Bar leaders, although some acknowledge that public trust may always be a moving target of sorts. “One of the large problems is that there is always something coming up that undermines public confidence,” said former longtime executive director Herb Rosenthal, citing the Watergate scandal as the kind of incident that can erode confidence almost overnight.

In the wake of that crisis, there was a move toward more public involvement in the bar. Public members were appointed to the board in the mid-1970s and non-lawyers were brought into the discipline process. Professionals were hired in the early 1970s to investigate and prosecute disciplinary matters and by the end of the decade, a volunteer State Bar Court was created. Then, 10 years later, the first and still only professional State Bar Court was created.

In recent decades, the bar also has launched various public education initiatives to help citizens understand their legal rights and responsibilities. Continuing legal education, legal specialization, lawyer assistance and diversion programs, legal services for those with limited resources and access to justice also have been at the heart of many State Bar efforts.

Recent years also have seen new restrictions placed on State Bar activities. In 1990, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Keller v. State Bar that the bar could not use mandatory dues for programs beyond its core functions.

In late 1997, Gov. Wilson’s dues bill veto marked the most serious threat ever to the State Bar’s existence. The reviving dues bill, enacted in 1999, set further limitations on the nation’s largest state bar. The fallout is a streamlined bar that is today more restricted in how it spends member dues.

If history is any indication, however, the State Bar may also be destined for a perennial debate over what its role is and should be. Some see an inherent tension in the bar’s role, representing lawyers on the one hand and policing them on the other.

“That, from time to time, causes the groups with whom the bar interacts, such as the legislature, to conclude that the bar is not doing a good enough job of its enforcement role and, on the other hand, from time to time, to cause the members to feel that the bar is not representing their interests adequately,” said federal Judge Margaret Morrow, the bar’s first woman president. “It’s a very, I think, delicate and difficult balance.”

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