Rejecting several key recommendations by a panel
appointed two years ago to study the State Bar's continuing
education requirements, the board of governors voted to keep the hours
low and to leave intact two controversial subject areas.
By a vote of 9-6, the board decided to keep the
MCLE requirement for active attorneys at 25 hours over three years,
the lowest requirement of any bar association in the country and the
lowest in California for every profession except pest controllers.
By a more lopsided 13-1 margin, it voted to
continue to require one hour each of education in the areas of
substance abuse and elimination of bias and an additional four hours
of ethics study.
The MCLE Evaluation Commission, appointed in the
summer of 1999, had recommended the elimination of the substance abuse
requirement and an increase in the hours from 25 to 30, although it
acknowledged the legislature recently reduced the hours and it would
likely be pointless to seek a change in Sacramento.
The commission also recommended eliminating all
exemptions (for elected officials, law school professors, and state
and federal employees) to the requirements and the board unanimously
rejected that suggestion.
Struggling with evidence that many California
lawyers object either to the subject requirements - particularly
substance abuse and the elimination of bias - or to the quality of
courses, bar governors decided in the end to do what they thought was
"I know I'm gonna take heat on this issue,"
said James Herman of Santa Barbara, pointing to results of a
commission survey which found that 77 percent of those polled said
substance abuse courses are of little or no use.
But he concluded, "This is the right thing to
do. There are some issues we have to stand up on and not be
Incoming bar president Karen Nobumoto noted there
is a proven nexus between substance abuse and attorney discipline and
said, "Two hours in three years? If we can't take the heat on
that, we don't belong in this job."
Although several board members initially seemed
disinclined to continue the substance abuse requirement, they were
persuaded by testimony from the bar's chief prosecutor and Lawrence
J. Kuhlman, vice president of The Other Bar, a State Bar-affiliated
program for alcoholic lawyers.
One thousand members strong, The Other Bar holds
30 to 40 meetings a week and offers MCLE courses. Kuhlman said
presenters routinely receive one to three calls after each course from
individuals looking for help, and that 80 percent of the calls to the
organization's intake line in southern California are not related to
"Our message is, 'There's hope,'"
Kuhlman said. Intervention prior to bar discipline offers huge cost
savings to the bar, he said, adding, "To take away this weapon will
hinder our efforts" to help lawyers avoid discipline.
Several board members said they were persuaded by
Mike Nisperos, the chief bar prosecutor who is himself a former drug
addict. He asked how the bar measures the success of the substance
abuse courses, wondering whether one life saved makes a program
James Otto, a governor from Los Angeles, said
Nisperos changed his thinking. Although he believed the board should
respond to unhappy members forced to take an unpopular course, he said
the substance abuse requirement should be preserved "if we can help
one or two or five or six people."
Despite its votes, the board acknowledged
widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of many MCLE courses and
asked for a review of the program to rectify quality control problems.
The board also received a mid-year financial
report indicating a decline in revenue, primarily in the areas of
member dues (almost 4,000 lawyers had not paid their dues at the end
of July, compared to about 1,000 in most years), investment income and
rent revenue from the bar's headquarters building in San Francisco.
The investment portfolio and rental revenue are both down due to the
slowdown of the economy, said Ron Albers, chair of the board's
administration and finance committee.
Despite a less rosy forecast than the bar had a
year ago, Pat Dixon of Los Angeles asked the board to pass a
resolution that budget planners "use their best efforts" to keep
next year's dues at the current $345 level. "We sent a wonderful
message with the dues reduction last year and I think it should stay
there," Dixon said.
But his proposal was defeated on an 11-5 vote
after several board members said they were concerned about setting a
dues target before financial planning is completed.
Albers reminded the board that it voted last year
to roll dues back by $50 because the bar had a surplus as it continued
to replace staff laid off following the 1997 veto of its funding
"Last year was a one-time rebate of a
surplus," Albers said.
In the recently enacted fee bill, the legislature
authorized the bar to collect up to $390 for 2002 and 2003.