State Bar board names Steve Nissen new executive director

Steven A. Nissen, known for his groundbreaking work at the nation's largest pro bono public interest law firm, will become executive director of the State Bar of California on Nov. 1.

Nissen, 46, currently executive director and general counsel of Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles, won crucial support from both attorney and public members of the board of governors to take over the helm of the largest state bar in the nation.

"I am looking forward to my new position and the opportunity to bring California attorneys together for the good of our profession and our state," the new executive director said. "These are exciting times for the legal community, and I am eager to take on the responsibilities that have been entrusted to me."

Nissen will succeed Herbert M. Rosenthal, 62, who will step down at the bar's annual meeting this month and assist in the transition through the end of the year.

"Steve will provide the inspirational direction for the bar as we continue to seek ways to preserve the legacy of justice for all Californians," said Marc Adelman, who will be sworn in as the bar's new president at the annual meeting. "He represents the very best qualities of public service. I am very eager to work with him in the coming year."

'Terrific coup'

Businessman John Morris, a public board member appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson, called Nissen's appointment "a terrific coup."

"Steve exceeds every expectation we had in seeking an executive director," Morris said. "He built Public Counsel into the biggest and best pro bono law firm in the United States, and he did it with a very modest base. What makes him so successful," Morris added, "is his ability to generate support from the private sector to support public access to justice. He will help the State Bar do more with less."

As executive director, Nissen inherits an organization with more than 155,000 attorney members and 750 employees. In addition to day-to-day management, Nissen will oversee the State Bar's primary goals of protecting the public from lawyer misconduct, providing services to promote attorneys' professional growth, educating the public about the legal system and improving the administration of justice.

During Nissen's tenure at Public Counsel, the staff and volunteers contributed more than $200 million worth of legal services to 80,000-plus children, low-income adults and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles County.

Track record

Through his leadership, Nissen recruited financial support from national and local foundations and private donors and enlisted volunteer attorneys to help Public Counsel clients on cases ranging from children's rights and economic development to consumer fraud. He also expanded support from both the Beverly Hills and Los Angeles County bar associations, who are co-sponsors of Public Counsel.

"Under Steve Nissen's leadership, Public Counsel went from three employees armed with a few cardboard file boxes to being the nation's largest pro bono public interest law firm," said Thomas Unterman, chief financial officer of The Times Mirror Co. and incoming president of Public Counsel's board of directors.

"We are looking forward to watching Steve lead the State Bar of Cal-fornia," said Unterman, "because the legal profession and the people of California will be better for it."

Nissen has received numerous awards for his legal leadership, including the American Bar Association's 1997 John Minor Wisdom Award for public service and professionalism.

John Stovall, chair of the bar's finance committee, called Nissen's selection the "most important action our board has taken this year."

And the outgoing bar president, Thomas Stolpman, also hailed the appointment. "We are very proud that one of our country's finest legal talents will join us as executive director of the nation's largest state bar," Stolpman said.

Honors graduate

An honors graduate in political science from Stanford University, Nissen graduated from Boalt Hall Law School in 1976 and now is a member of the Boalt Hall Alumni Association board. In 1977, Nissen joined the law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney (now Manatt, Phelps & Phillips) and quickly became a partner.

His private practice included extensive trial and arbitration work as well as state and federal appellate practice.

The new executive director's bar accomplishments are lengthy. Currently, Nissen serves on the State Bar's Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE) Commission and the Los Angeles County Bar Association's Access to Justice Committee. He has served on the executive committee of the State Bar's Legal Services Se-tion, as delegate to the Conference of Delegates and as a member of the State Bar's Access to Justice Working Group.

Community service

Nissen's lengthy community service includes leadership roles on the Los Angeles Police Commission Ju-enile Issues Collaborative, the Judicial Council of California, the Mayor's Volunteer Advisory Council, the Citizens' Blue Ribbon Commission to Investigate Slum Housing and the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN).

Nissen is married to Lynn Alvarez, a former UCLA law professor and current program officer for the California Community Foundation. They have a son, Daniel, almost 2, and are expecting a second child in December. They will be relocating to San Francisco.