Three years ago, when I was serving my first year on the executive committee of the Conference of Delegates, the State Bar was embroiled in a debate about its future. The Commission on the Future of the Legal Profession and the State Bar ("Futures Commission") was considering various proposals to change the way the legal profession is governed in California. The commission endorsed (with dissent) the current mandatory State Bar as the best structure to perform the necessary functions of governing lawyers and serving the profession.
That was round one in the debate. Round two came the following year with the plebiscite. California lawyers debated and voted on whether they wanted to continue the system of an integrated bar that has both regulatory and professional functions. The overwhelming vote in favor of the integrated bar did not end the controversy.
Gov. Wilson's veto of the dues bill began round three. Once again, California lawyers are facing a change in the way our profession is governed. This time, the debate focuses on whether the integrated bar can perform both regulatory functions and those functions commonly associated with a professional association.
When the Futures Commission studied the bar structure, they held statewide focus sessions, took surveys and engaged in much analysis. The plebiscite was a democratic activity. The campaign waged on both sides was vigorous and the vote was open to every California lawyer. This time, we lawyers have generally been excluded from the process of redesigning the structure that governs our own profession. The decisions are being made for us by politicians. Whether you are happy with the bar or would like it remade in Pete Wilson's image, the fact is that changes will be made without your vote.
For some of us, a compromise that saves the regulatory functions of the bar is not enough if lawyers are left without a statewide professional association. For some cynical and apathetic attorneys, maybe it doesn't matter if the bar ceases functioning as a professional association and no other statewide organization fills that gap. If practicing law is just another way to make a buck, it doesn't matter if we pay our annual dues to an agency stripped of the ability to represent our interests as professionals.
However, I believe that the approximately 80,000 members of 136 voluntary bars that comprise the Conference of Delegates view the practice of law as more than just a job. They understand that the law is a profession and that we need a professional association to represent our views and our interests. They understand that we benefit by having a forum like the Conference of Delegates in which to present our ideas for improving the law.
The process of creating a voluntary statewide association of attorneys began last February at the midyear bar conference in Napa. Before the conference began, the executive committee of the Conference of Delegates met in one-half of a partitioned room while the California Association of Local Bars and the Executives of California Lawyers' Association met in the other half. Before long, we removed the barrier and held a joint meeting to discuss the bar's future. This was more than a symbolic act. At that meeting, we created a committee with representation from the local bars, the Conference of Delegates and the State Bar sections whose charge is to draft the framework of an organization designed to take on the non-mandatory functions separated from the State Bar. If a new professional association emerges from the dues crisis, remember that it began in Napa at an event sponsored by the Conference of Delegates, the voice of the voluntary bars.
The conference has been the only body representative of all of the lawyers who belong to voluntary bars in California.
Whatever professional association takes the bar's place, I believe it must include a Conference of Delegates. Lawyers need some vehicle for advancing their ideas for improving the law.
The Conference provides a forum for presenting and studying those ideas. If the Conference of Delegates did not already exist, the organized bar would want to create it.
Mark Alan Hart, an attorney in Northridge, is chair of the Conference of Delegates Executive Committee.