Lawyers vote 2 to 1 to keep California's State Bar unified

President Towery lauds 51 percent turnout, pledges to continue with reforms initiated during his tenure

Staff Writer

By a decisive two to one margin, California attorneys turned back the effort to abolish the mandatory State Bar, and elated bar executives said they hope the resounding vote will resolve the question of self-governance once and for all.

"The lawyers of California have shown their decisive support for an independent profession," said bar President Jim Towery. "It is clear they want to maintain the profession, independent of political interference."

"What we have done," added President-elect Thomas Stolpman, "is to validate the legal profession. The vote affirmed our profession and the values we stand for."

Fifty-one percent -- 60,885 -- of the 119,327 eligible active attorneys cast ballots, a turnout bar officials said was heavier than expected.

Thirty-five percent voted to abolish the mandatory bar and sixty-five percent voted against abolition. The official tally was 21,589 in favor of abolition and 39,296 opposed.

The results of the vote, which was advisory only, were delivered to the governor, legislature and Supreme Court July 1.

Sen. Quentin Kopp, I-San Francis-co, who wrote SB 60 requiring the plebiscite, said getting rid of the bar is "not high on my legislative priorities . . . I've stated that I would honor the results of the plebiscite, but the State Bar had better seize the opportunity to improve its performance."

Kopp said he does, however, intend to introduce legislation next year to reduce bar dues by $40.

"The fact that you've got 21,589 unhappy lawyers . . . should alarm the State Bar," the senator said. "I think that the State Bar now knows that at least 35 percent [of the active members who voted] is dissatisfied and would like an end to forced conscription."

Towery, who led the the seven-month campaign against abolition, said attorneys agreed with his central theme that lawyers should continue to regulate themselves and remain free of legislative interference.

He also found support for his second message -- that attorneys "want a bar that maintains high professional standards."

During the campaign, the president said he found widespread support for a strong attorney discipline system which both protects the public and enforces professionalism.

Towery, who was forced to devote virtually his entire presidency to campaigning against SB 60, also ackowledged that despite the success of the bar's campaign, substantial numbers of attorneys are unhappy with a bar they perceive as too bureaucratic, inefficient and unresponsive. Many who voted to retain the mandatory bar did so with reservations, he said, and their concerns must be addressed.

The bar has made significant financial reductions during the past two years and has begun a series of reforms that will continue, Towery said. In particular, fiscal accountability and responsiveness to attorney issues will be stressed.

"The plebiscite accelerated the process of reform," Towery said. "The plebiscite will not be the end of the reform process."

Towery has promised a $20 reduction in the $478 yearly dues, but Kopp said following the vote he will seek an additional $20 cut.

Stolpman said he hopes the reduction will be limited to $20 and that the legislature will "give us the freedom with the dues bill to continue to do a good job."

David and Goliath

The plebiscite campaign amounted to a David and Goliath battle, with the bar winning the endorsement of more than 100 legal organizations and eight retired Supreme Court justices for its retention and the anti-bar group standing virtually alone.

The bar created the Coalition to Save the Unified Bar (CSUB), hired an outside consultant and raised thousands of dollars to fund the volunteer-run campaign. The Lawyers' Committee for a Yes Vote spent about $3,500.

Kopp and Peter Keane, a former Board of Governors member who led the abolition movement, hammered the bar with accusations of bloat, inefficiency and arrogance. Despite paying the highest bar dues in the country, they charged, California attorneys get little in the way of services.

Anti-bar activists said the Administrative Office of the Courts would do a better job of regulating lawyers, and a voluntary bar, free of Keller restrictions, could more effectively represent and defend the profession.

Towery and other bar officials conceded the bar is far from perfect, but said it has worked hard in recent years to make reforms and cut its budget. They stressed that even if the bar were dismantled, attorneys would still pay for their regulation.

Fatal flaw

And they effectively capitalized on SB 60's fatal flaw: it did not specify what entity would replace the bar to handle lawyer regulation. Towery continually asked lawyers if they want to be regulated by a different state bureaucracy, such as the Department of Consumer Affairs, and if they wanted to place their future in the hands of a hostile legislature.

On the day the vote was announced, Keane interpreted the numbers as a win for his camp and promised another attempt to dismantle the bar within a year.

"The results show 70 percent of lawyers either voted against the bar or felt it was so out of it it wasn't worth the powder to blow it up," said Keane, chief assistant public defender in San Francisco.

"This was just a dress rehearsal. If the bar thinks it was the final scene, they're kidding themselves."

Keane said if bar opponents seek a new plebiscite, they will specify that attorney regulation would be transferred to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Although the campaign became fractious at times -- Kopp wrote a bill solely "to dispel the untruths of Towery and his confederates" -- Towery wound up thanking Kopp for forcing the bar and its members to take a close look at the organization.

"With the benefit of hindsight, I think it has been an extraordinarily healthy process," Towery said.

Defining the mission

The election forced the bar to define its mission, reach out to its members and justify its existence. Towery said he would recommend such self-examination for all organizations, including the legislature.

The bar spent more than $200,000 complying with SB 60's requirements. It paid the state auditor $100,000 to examine its books, a sum which does not include staff time spent on assisting the auditor.

Price Waterhouse was hired at a cost of just under $100,000 to handle the nuts and bolts of the election, including printing, mailing and counting the ballots. In addition, the bar must pay the firm 50 cents per vote to count every vote over 20,000. Because more than 60,000 ballots were cast, the extra tallying will cost more than $20,000.

The election results are similar to a vote in Washington last year, when slightly more than half the state's attorneys left the mandatory bar intact by a lopsided 71.3 percent margin.

Bar Journal poll

The vote also mirrors a scientific poll conducted by the California Bar Journal a year ago which found that 74 percent of the state's attorneys believe they should be required to belong to the State Bar in order to practice law.

When asked what entity -- the State Bar, an agency of state government or a local bar association -- should license attorneys to practice, 79 percent favored the State Bar, 13 percent wanted a government agency and 3 percent said a local bar.

The poll had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.5 percent. It was conducted before SB 60 was approved.

The ballot

The plebiscite required a "yes" or "no" answer to the question: "Shall the State Bar be abolished as the agency regulating lawyers in this state on behalf of the legislature and Supreme Court, with its regulatory functions turned over to another body or bodies and some or all of its other activities handled by a voluntary bar association or associations?"

Attached to the ballot was an analysis prepared by the state's legislative analyst and a set of pro and con arguments. A special four-member monitoring panel representing both sides oversaw the entire process.

Price Waterhouse and the monitoring panel took numerous precautions to safeguard the fairness of the vote and to ensure its confidentiality. When ballots were returned to the accounting firm, they were scanned into a secure computer and stored in a locked room. The ballots will be destroyed in six months.