For employees, the crisis is real

Staff Writers


At 51, and with eight years of experience at the State Bar, Bobbie Young did not think she would have to look for a new job. But her position as an accounting clerk has been eliminated, the victim of Gov. Wilson's veto of the bar's fee bill and subsequent legislative bickering.

Young is just one of the 500 State Bar employees who received a potential layoff notice at the end of April. Unless emergency legislation is enacted, most of those employees will be packing up and leaving their offices on June 26.

Young, who works in the bar's San Francisco headquarters, plans to dust off her resume and look for temporary employment. "It's not something I'm happy about, but I have to continue working," she said. "I cannot afford to retire."

For Geraldine Bell, an administrative assistant in office services at the bar's Los Angeles building, it's almost a deja vu experience.

Bell, a single parent with a teenager and college student to support, was laid off years ago when she worked in the aviation manufacturing industry. "When I got this job, I thought I would be here awhile because there are always going to be attorneys around — and bad attorneys, too," she said.

Bell, like other employees, is frustrated by the legislative battles over the future of the State Bar. "What's so hard is that it's not our fault," she said. "It's a political war."

"The staff are innocent victims of a political battle," says Young. "We do not have the power to change the rules. We're just here to do our job — [and] I think I do a good job."

"Is this all over $400?" Biljanna Sivanov asked rhetorically. Sivanov, staff director of the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE), said she is surprised at the depth of hostility toward the bar.

"This is so political," she said. "It's not something I've ever been involved in before. It's amazing one or two people can do this."

Concerned about her health benefits and the mortgage on the home she's owned for 20 years, Sivanov, a bar employee since 1982, takes comfort in knowing she was not laid off because of poor job performance.

Over the years, she says, she has worked long hours, including nights and weekends. "I don't blame anybody here," she said. "I know how hard the staff has worked."

Christopher Staackmann, 37, a senior investigator who has worked at the bar for 11 years, says he believes Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg's bill to restructure the bar has addressed many of Wilson's concerns and that the issues that divide legislators now are "peripheral, almost trivial."

For instance, he called Assembly-man Bill Morrow's attack on the Client Security Fund "tragically uneducated."

However, he agrees that mandatory dues should not be used for political purposes and he supports changing the way the bar is governed, calling the existing structure ineffective.

Out of 15 investigators in San Francisco, only one slot has been preserved and Staackmann expects to be laid off. "I'm feeling a lot of stress, which is too bad, because I like the work," he said. "It's fascinating and intellectually challenging. But there's something about driving a tugboat on the bay that sounds really good."

In addition to concerns about their own financial future, some employees say the longterm effects on the bar's operations will be devastating.

Attorney Jill Sperber, 40, has been with the office of the general counsel for eight years, is married, has two small children and has been spending weekends at work just to keep abreast of the increased workload.

Her office has been hit hard because of a long-term hiring and promotion freeze, resulting in half the normal amount of staff carrying a full load of work.

More to the point, says Sperber, the cutbacks and potential shutdown "not only affect the consumers, but bar members won't have the ability to turn to the State Bar to report misconduct. Also, they need access to discipline records to support their needs in litigation."

It may sound self-serving, she says, "but what's going to happen when the lights go out and then we have to start back up again?" The bar will end up spending more money to train new attorneys because the ones with experience will move on to other jobs, says Sperber.

Andrea Wachter, 55, has been at the State Bar since 1980 and is the most senior prosecutor in San Francisco. Her job is preserved with the skeletal crew, as is a deputy chief trial counsel. They will be left with only a paralegal and an investigator. A few more attorneys will remain in Los Angeles.

Between now and June 30, Wachter has four trials and two oral arguments. After June 30, there will be upwards of 700 cases to try. "I have no idea how we're going to deal with it yet," said Wachter, adding that she is totally overwhelmed and considering looking for another job.

Asked to characterize the predicament facing the bar and the discipline system, Wachter said, "It's not a joke. I think it's appalling that the legislature, even though it professes to care, is totally inconsiderate of the public protection issue and the involvement of the discipline sector."

The office of legal services will be wiped out by the layoffs, including the job held by Lyle Wing, 44. A senior administrative assistant, Wing has been with the bar for 19 years, is married, has a 15-year-old child and a mortgage on his home.

"Our office has been the moral conscience of the bar, so to leave that behind is troubling," Wing says. He also is concerned that there will be a "tremendous gap" in the task of promoting pro bono work and access to justice.

Even though her job has not been eliminated, Sonia Sotomayor, 54, a deputy court clerk in the discipline department in Los Angeles, says she will probably be bumped out of her position by a more senior employee.

A bar employee for 10 years, Sotomayor thinks Wilson is to blame for the bar's woes. "He is not thinking along human terms and seems to have a personal vendetta," she said.

Like other employees, Sotomayor is concerned that so many of her colleagues have left for other jobs. "They say they can't go through this every year and want to go somewhere else where it is safer. It's sad because we're losing a lot of good employees, and the bar will just have to train new people."

But the hard part is not knowing what will happen on a day-to-day basis, says Sotomayor. "A lot of people are stressed out. Every day we come to work people say, 'Is there any news for us today? Did you hear anything?' "