Bar begins to cut services
by NANCY McCARTHY
When fully staffed, the bar employed about 720 people.
In addition to severe repercussions on the discipline system, the bar's financial turmoil jeopardizes hundreds of thousands of dollars in contractual obligations, threatens professional competency services and programs and virtually assures inefficient short-term business decisions rather than more economic long-range planning.
"My heart goes out to the employees who dedicated their lives to the State Bar," said bar President Marc Adelman. "They played no role in the politics of Sacramento. They just did their jobs."
The State Bar's new executive director, Steven A. Nissen, said, "Not only are hundreds of innocent employees the losers" given the legislative impasse, "but this is a lose-lose situation for California's consumers and its attorneys.
"Consumers face the loss of public protection and access to the system," Nissen noted. "Lawyers face further erosion in public confidence of this great profession."
The discipline operation, which includes the prosecutor's office and the State Bar Court, consumes the lion's share of the bar budget and will be hit hardest by an empty bank account. In addition to not accepting consumer complaints, the office will prosecute only the most egregious cases, won't monitor disciplined attorneys who are on probation and will halt its prevention programs.
"As much as lawyers gripe about the State Bar," says Chief Trial Counsel Judy Johnson, "the public and the profession have come to depend upon the discipline system we have. Consumers who could expect their complaint to be addressed in less than six months can now expect years of delay."
The discipline department employs 283 people when fully staffed and the State Bar Court another 52. Johnson said if there is no fee bill, the prosecution arm, which includes attorneys, investigators, a probation department and a prevention team, will be reduced to about 20 people.
Scott Drexel, head of the State Bar Court, said its staff will be reduced to seven. (The bar court lost one-third of its staff three years ago and its budget was slashed by about $1.2 million.) The six judges are appointed by the Supreme Court and their jobs will continue.
The court has 121 cases set for trial between April 1 and June 26 and plans to proceed. If most of the staff goes, however, "our ability to process cases will be very limited," Drexel said.
Johnson has made extensive contingency plans for a worst-case scenario, based on the number of complaints, actual cases and dollars that flow through the discipline department.
Because it takes 60 days to process new matters and there are 1,400 new matters pending in the intake unit at any given time, Johnson shut down the complaint line at the end of April, 60 days before layoffs would occur.
At the same time, she adopted new prosecutorial criteria which will be applied to those 1,400 matters. Routine attorney misdeeds such as not communicating with clients, failure to pay medical liens or a fee dispute over partially completed work will not be prosecuted. Under the new criteria, only the most egregious wrongdoing - which would lead to disbarment or actual suspension - will be processed, Johnson said.
Because only three or four of the usual 65 investigators will remain employed, all investigations will go on hold, Johnson said. The bar investigates about 21,000 complaints a year.
Beyond the cases already set for trial in State Bar Court, another 600 have been filed and will be litigated, Johnson said. "We anticipate there will be lengthy delays in processing those matters in court," she said, noting that layoffs of both prosecuting attorneys and State Bar Court attorneys will impede the court's efficiency.
In addition to its prosecutorial functions, the discipline system monitors 1,000 attorneys who are on probation at any given time. All probation monitors will be laid off, Johnson said. Errant attorneys also frequently are ordered to attend ethics school or courses on law office management and client trust accounting, each a program with a good track record of low recidivism. Those, too, will end.
"For consumers, the delay is not as bad as the fact that essentially lawyers are going to go unregulated," Johnson said. "It's like the sheriff will have left town on a Saturday night when he knows the cowboys are coming in. There's nothing I can do about it."
Johnson has explored the possibility of using volunteer attorney prosecutors, but says it likely will take them two to three years to handle a case that would take the bar's discipline system about six months to process.
Even if funding is restored, Johnson believes the slowdown in the system will have long-lasting repercussions and its credibility will be undermined. "No matter how you look at the current crisis, there is going to be a drop-off in the production of the system," she said.
Decimating the bar
With the exception of the admissions unit, the Client Security Fund and a few programs which are self-funded, no department was left un-touched by the layoff notices. Communications, bar relations, legal services, professional competency, real property and client relations will be decimated if the layoffs occur.
Some activities required by statute will not exist without funds, including the Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE) Commission and the fee arbitration program.
The Client Security Fund, which collects $40 annually from every California attorney and pays money to clients defrauded by their lawyer, will stay afloat. The Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) also remains operational, although the constitutionality of such programs is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
This year's annual meeting, Oct. 1-4 in Monterey, will go forward because cancellation would have resulted in severe financial penalties.
It will be business as usual in the admissions department, which will administer the next bar exam in July and continue to process moral character applications normally.
Jerome Braun, head of admissions, also said certification programs will continue, to the extent they generate adequate revenues to do so. Those include continuing education courses and certification, practical training of law students, LLPs and foreign legal consultants. Braun said the legal specialization program will continue because it is self-supporting.
The California Bar Journal, because it pays for itself through advertising and other revenue, will continue to publish and be sent to all active and inactive attorneys as well as judges.