Raising the bar

(This editorial appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on May 18.)

It's time for Gov. Wilson, legislators from both parties and leaders of the legal profession to cut a deal for financing the State Bar's regulatory role through reasonable dues on lawyers.

Otherwise, the months-long impasse over bar funding could victimize the public by inviting rogue lawyers to see how much they can get away with by violating professional standards while regulators fiddle.

Wilson, who for years has feuded with the State Bar and major associations of attorneys, brought matters to a head with his veto last fall of legislation that would have allowed the bar to levy annual dues of $458 on each of California's 156,000 lawyers.

Without that authorization, the bar is empowered to collect only $77 per lawyer, punching a yawning hole in its budget and requiring layoffs of 500 staff members -- most of the 720 normally employed in the bar's programs.

The resulting cutback of bar activities is potentially harmful to Californians at large. Processes for receiving and investigating complaints from the public about attorney misconduct, pursuing cases of legal abuse and disciplining lawyers found to be at fault, will be devastated if the layoffs take effect on June 26.

The bar's discipline unit has stopped taking new complaints and may never get around to dealing with the backlog. The bar normally investigates 21,000 complaints a year, and a portion of these reflect genuine suffering at the hands of unscrupulous or careless attorneys.

The State Bar itself is partly responsible for the mess.

It has given ammunition to its enemies with a long record of arrogance toward critics and questionable use of dues money for lobbying and liberal-leaning political advocacy with which many members disagree. Some of its stands had little or nothing to do with the practice of law.

Before Wilson's veto, the California bar was charging its members twice the average in the other 49 states.

Negotiations in Sacramento on compromise legislation to restore most of the bar's dues-collecting power (one bill would reduce dues to $419 this year and $399 in 1999) also point toward curtailing its lobbying and political activities and perhaps changing its governance -- now a 23-member board composed mostly of lawyers elected by lawyers.

The important thing is to retain and improve whatever protections the non-lawyering public can get against professional misconduct, and put the serious offenders out of business.

Wilson's grievances about lawyers who have not supported him are trivial compared to the people's stake in the outcome.