California Bar Journal
OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF THE STATE BAR OF CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 2001
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California Bar Journal

The State Bar of California


REGULARS

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Front Page - August 2001
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News / News Briefs
MCLE deadline for Group 3 (last names N-Z) is Feb. 1
Judicial Council launches online self-help center
California lawyers honored for work for homeless, minorities and children
Coy about her future, Reno focuses on women's issues
No bias found against solos
Governor signs two-year fee bill
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Ethics update...
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Trials Digest
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Opinion
From the President - Bar targets unauthorized practice
Microsoft ruling: Foundation to settle
MJP is more than alphabet soup
Letters to the Editor
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Legal Tech - A look back at six years of technology news
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You Need to Know
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MCLE Self-Study
A word from our sponsors
Self-Assessment Test
MCLE Calendar of Events
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Discipline
Ethics Byte - Let's go surfin' now, everybody's learnin' how
Recovering alcoholic may get to recover his license
Attorney Discipline
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Public Comment
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No bias found against solos

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By SHARON LERMAN
Staff Writer
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The perils of flying solo are evident in a new study showing that a lack of support and managerial skills, rather than built-in bias against independent attorneys, fuels the State Bar's largely complaint-driven disciplinary system. More than 78 percent of respondents to bar prosecutions are sole practitioners and small-firm lawyers, a number that seems disproportionate in light of 1995 American Bar Association statistics which showed 61.5 percent of lawyers are employed at practices with five or fewer attorneys.

But the year-long study by independent consulting firm Hilton Farnkopf & Hobson LLC counters a long-held suspicion that the bar unfairly targets solo practitioners. A State Bar report on the study's findings, made public in July, says small-scale attorneys are more likely to attract investigation, prosecution and discipline because clients lodge a disproportionate number of complaints against them.

During the one-year study, 89 percent of complaints to the bar concerned solos and firms with fewer than 10 attorneys. And when such complaints come in, no data is gathered on the attorney's size or type of practice, more evidence the study cited to support its contention that the bar is unbiased.

The study was conducted in response to legislation requiring the bar to examine possible bias against solos and small firm lawyers in its discipline system. It is the nation's first independent, statistical study comparing discipline and law-firm size.

The report suggests large-firm lawyers have the corporate backing and resources that put them at a great advantage over mom-and-pop practitioners, who often are overworked, experience financial difficulties or lack support staff. These problems can lead to missed deadlines, failure to communicate with clients, borrowing against client trust accounts and other mismanagement, the report suggested.

In addition, these practitioners - unlike their large-firm counterparts - frequently do not cooperate with bar investigations, which is itself a  violation of State Bar ethical rules. And when they do cooperate, they often cannot provide the documentation needed to defend themselves against allegations of misconduct or lack the money to hire a lawyer of their own.

"In this day and age, we realize that sole practitioners are operating under tremendous stress in a competitive profession and economy," said Judy Johnson, the bar's executive director.

"The bar is committed to providing support to those attorneys who don't have ample resources that lawyers in larger firms have at their fingertips," Johnson continued. "We will continue to be responsive to public complaints, but at the same time will continue to provide educational resources and assistance to help solos in their practice."