Adversity has some advantages

The State Bar of California has survived another challenge, but not without cost. Supporters of a unified bar can take comfort in their almost 2 to 1 margin of victory. Equally heartening was the turnout -- more than half of the 120,000 members.

Ordered by the legislature, the plebiscite on the future of the unified bar cost $120,000 for printing, mailing and counting ballots. Another $100,000 of the bar's budget went for a state audit, also mandated by Sacramento.

Beyond the hard costs were the intangibles -- staff time, administrative anxiety and diversion from other important projects.

But there also were benefits.

As never before, the bar reached out to its membership. Led by President Jim Towery, the Board of Governors criss-crossed the state, speaking in support of the organization.

Overtures to groups, such as the District Attorneys Association, may pay dividends far beyond the life of the plebiscite campaign.

A costly public relations effort by the Coalition to Save the Unified Bar brought the message to individual members, and it paid off in the higher-than-expected turnout.

Most important were the substantive reforms. This year, the Board of Governors is expected to approve a yearly dues reduction of $20. This follows a trend of budget-cutting instituted two years ago.

The plebiscite campaign drove home the need to be more responsive to members and to better communicate with them. It encouraged the bar to sharpen the image of what it does -- from public protection to legal services for the poor, from admissions to suspensions.

It would not be surprising if some senior members of the staff and board feel a little like Job. The plebiscite is only the latest in a series of crises which date back four years to legislation to abolish the bar.

There have been commissions on the future of the bar, reforming the discipline system and, most recently, the bar's role in selecting judges.

Through it all, the State Bar of California has managed survival and even success. Adversity apparently has its advantages.