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After more than three decades of service to the State Bar, Herbert M. Rosenthal will retire next year as leader of the organization which governs California's 155,000 attorneys.
Rosenthal -- whose State Bar tenure has included stints as general counsel, secretary to the bar's Board of Governors and, since 1987, executive director -- plans to step down at the bar's annual meeting in September and assist in the transition period.
He will officially retire on Jan. 18, his 63rd birthday.
"While it saddens me to think of leaving so many wonderful colleagues and such important work, I feel an enormous sense of gratitude for having had this unparalleled opportunity to serve the people of California and my profession," Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal took over the bar's top staff post when California's discipline system was in major turmoil. A backlog of cases had pushed the system to near collapse in the mid-1980s, triggering a public outcry for reform. Rosenthal oversaw the revamping of the system and the creation of a professional State Bar Court, which has since been hailed as a national model. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Bascue, who served as the first chief trial counsel for the restructured system from 1987 to 1990, recalls Rosenthal as a "guiding beacon" during that very chaotic period of reform.
He also has steadfastly worked to expand legal services for the poor, improve the state's attorney-client relations and promote greater diversity in the profession. Chief Justice Ronald M. George describes Rosenthal as a kind and insightful leader who has "helped navigate the bar through often difficult waters." George also credits Rosenthal with being at the forefront of cooperative efforts between the bar and the courts in recent years.
Colleagues describe Rosenthal as a consensus builder, an excellent listener and a remarkably compassionate manager. Many underscore his sense of caring and its effect on others.
"Herb shows people how they can participate and helps them understand that they can make a difference," said Patricia Phillips, a former State Bar board member who chaired the 1995 Commission on the Future of the Legal Profession and the State Bar. "He does more than preach to the choir."
Raised in southern California, Rosenthal initially set his sights on a career in teaching. But as a history major at UCLA, Rosenthal's interests turned to law. After graduating from Hastings College of the Law and passing the bar examination, he had two job offers. He chose the State Bar. That was 1962 -- and he never left. He discovered, he said, that he liked being "on the cutting edge of new professional issues."
Hired as a staff attorney, Rosenthal was named general counsel in 1973. Since his appointment as executive director in 1987, he has worked with 11 different State Bar presidents and, during the 1991-92 year, served as secretary to the bar's board as well.
Former State Bar President Charles Vogel, now presiding justice of the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Four, underscored Rosenthal's ability to "always steer the State Bar president in the right direction."
Another past president, Donald Fischbach, credited Rosenthal's leadership for maintaining a unified bar during last year's plebiscite.
Rosenthal's list of affiliations is lengthy, ranging from his work as chair of several American Bar Association projects and commissions, to his membership on the governing boards of the California Appellate Project and the First District Appellate Project.
He also has worked to combat gender bias in the profession and has actively supported Volunteers in Parole, a program pairing attorney mentors with parolees, for which he served as the first executive director 30 years ago.
Rosenthal is a recipient of the Bar Association of San Francisco's merit award for outstanding pro bono contributions and has been a strong supporter and advocate of law-related education in the schools.