200 remain to navigate 'The Ark'

Staff Writer


layoffs occurred. The majority of those left are not funded by bar dues.

Highlights of the effect on some offices are:

n Fee arbitration. None of the six authorized positions remains. The office is accepting only new cases of clients who have received from their attorney a required 30-day notice of the right to arbitrate. Other clients with a fee dispute are referred to a local bar association.

The office also stopped enforcing arbitration awards which attorneys refuse to pay.

n Certification. Programs which generate their own fees will continue, including legal specialization, lawyer referral services, practical training of law students and limited liability partnerships.

n MCLE. The minimum continuing legal education (MCLE) program continues, pending a Supreme Court decision on the program’s constitutionality. An appellate court threw out the program more than a year ago and the bar appealed, but the court has not yet scheduled oral argument.

The bar expects California law-yers to comply, but is not suspending those who do not. Just over half the group whose compliance deadline was Feb. 1 met the requirement.

n Competence. Director David Bell now staffs what was a 10-member office. The heavily used Ethics Hotline, usually manned by six full-time expert paralegals and an attorney, has shut down. The 1998 Publication 250, a compilation of relevant professional responsibility authorities, is available at the bar’s web site.

The law office management assistance (LOMA) program will continue only to the end of the contract year in September, and the Lawyers Personal Assistance Program (LPAP), a discipline prevention program for attorneys with substance abuse problems, will be dramatically downscaled.

The Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (COPRAC), a volunteer committee which devises new ethics rules and other rules of court, is deciding how best to continue without staff support, Bell said.

n Client Security Fund. Because $40 of the annual member dues is earmarked for this fund, which reimburses clients of dishonest attorneys, the program will continue. Director Martha Gonzalez said her office has a current caseload of 1,200 cases. The office is staffed by 14 people.

n Voluntary groups which previously enjoyed staff support, such as the California Young Lawyers Association, the ethnic minority relations committee and the women in the law committee, will continue to exist, but without State Bar funding. However, according to Ann Wassam, former acting director of bar relations, they will have no staff support, will hold meetings only if critical, volunteers will cover costs and the committees will offer fewer MCLE programs.

n Membership services. The highest priority will be to maintain the member database, including changes of address (37,000 a year), name changes, etc. But with the staff reduced from between 20 and 25 to eight, the work will take longer.

The office receives 260,000 inquiry calls a year; callers are now referred to the Internet, where member records are online. Tasks such as enrolling new members and updating discipline orders will require longer processing. Some services, such as providing membership lists to local bars, will be eliminated.

n Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE). The commission continues to exist with members appointed to terms ending in March 1999, but with no bar funding. Members are eager to continue their work and have proposed independent fundraising to keep JNE operational. The fundraising will pay the salary for one staff member, at least temporarily.

n Internet. Many web sites will continue to exist but will not be updated, with the exception of the California Bar Journal, membership records, bar exam results and information about the educational sections.

n Discipline. The office is accepting written complaints, but assistant chief trial counsel Fran Bassios says the number of written inquiries has dropped by half. The bar usually receives about 1,200 written inquiries each month, and that number has dropped to between 600 and 700.

Between June 26 and early December, 159 are scheduled for trial before the State Bar Court, but it is likely that only about one-third of those will be heard. Most of the nearly 700 cases pending in the bar court were abated. Only those cases which have already been taken under submission or which are determined to be critical for public protection or due process reasons will continue to be processed.

The staff of the State Bar Court was reduced from 52 to seven positions. All of the bar court judges will continue to serve on the court, but in light of the bar’s financial problems, they have agreed to temporarily reduce their salaries to the collective salary of three full-time judges.