California Bar Journal
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Bar gears up for post-crisis mode
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last two years an opportunity to seek a credit or refund. Between $10 and $11 million flowed into bar coffers from those payments, and it is uncertain how many will seek to reclaim their donations.

"In the face of these uncertainties, we'll proceed very cautiously," said acting executive director Jeffrey T. Gersick. "We certainly won't be institutionalizing any elements of a bureaucracy."

Gersick said he hopes the lawyers who made voluntary contributions will allow the bar to keep those funds. "They helped the bar to stay open," Gersick said, "and reclaiming that money now would send programs into a tailspin once again."

The bar's financial crisis was precipitated by Wilson in October 1997, when he vetoed the $458 per lawyer dues authorization for 1998. As a result, the bar could collect only $77 from each active member - $27 for the general fund, $40 for the Client Security Fund, and $10 for a building fund, each authorized by statute.

The dues-generated revenue of the bar's general fund went from $49.6 million in 1997 to $4.2 million in 1998, resulting in nearly 500 layoffs and the virtual shutdown of most operations. The Supreme Court-ordered $173 per lawyer assessment produced more than $30 million in revenue this year, all earmarked for discipline-related activities.

The bar anticipates receiving about $40 million from membership fees in 2000. This amount will pay the salaries of 501 fulltime employees, which represents a staff reduction of approximately 25 percent from pre-veto levels. In 1997, 663 fulltime employees were paid with membership fees, and at its lowest point last year, only 43 employees on the payroll were paid by member dues.

(The bar also maintains a number of self-supported programs, such as admissions, legal specialization and the legal services trust fund, whose employees are paid by program funds, not member dues.)

The discipline system, which consumes almost 70 percent of the budget, received about two-thirds of its usual funding when the Supreme Court ordered lawyers to pay the special assessment this year, although it has not been able to fill all the authorized positions.

Chief trial counsel Judy Johnson said she hopes that by the end of next year, the bar will be able to "address the most egregious matters and bring those to a resolution, because they will have been languishing in the system for a number of years."

Although the discipline system next year is supposed to have the same number of prosecutors, investigators, paralegals and support staff - 285 - that it had before the 1998 layoffs, it has nonetheless lost a great deal of experience. About one-third of the current staff has less than six months of ethics law experience, and next year, half the staff "will be green," Johnson says. "It's not just the number of employees, but their time and experience in the system that's important."

In addition, the number of unresolved cases is not as important as their age and complexity, Johnson said, explaining that her office now concentrates almost exclusively on serious misconduct. "With the resources we've have been given and the inventory those resources must address, we have to focus on the most egregious matters," she explained. "That means either the less egregious ones won't be addressed at all or will be addressed without using State Bar resources." Johnson said she likely will propose using volunteer attorneys to handle some of the minor misconduct cases.

As the prosecution of errant lawyers resumes in earnest, the State Bar Court also plans to beef up its office, although it will have only about 70 percent of the pre-layoff staff, said court administrator Scott Drexel. The mostly dormant fee arbitration program is being revitalized with a staff of four (compared to the previous six), and the court faces the expiration of terms of five of the eight judges next November.

High on the board's priority list next year will be hiring a new executive director. At its last meeting, the board voted 9-5 to pay an executive search firm $50,000 to find candidates for the top job. Former executive director Steven A. Nissen quit in March to work for Gov. Davis, and Gersick has been filling in since then. Although several board members have asked him to stay on, Gersick made clear he does not want the job on a permanent basis.

During the next three years, the bar will invest in technological improvements, including a more user-friendly website which will offer, among other services, continuing education courses.

Other enhancements, such as case management and tracking software, are expected to increase efficiency, and additional productivity tools likely will be added in the future.

"We plan to reinstitute our website to assist our members with education, information and research," said board member Thomas J. Warwick, chair of the administration and finance committee. "We hope to use our computer technology to interact with our members and the public to provide them with better services."

The bar also hopes to reinstate some of the many defunct programs which offered assistance to dozens of local and specialty bars, legal services operations and consumers. Ann Wassam, director of program development, said her office expects to hire 10 people who will handle a variety of programs which have been consolidated.

The member services office has eliminated its telephone inquiry line and instead makes membership infor-mation is available online. The inquiry line received 258,159 calls in 1997, while the electronic records likely will exceed 2.9 million hits this year.

"In virtually every area of the bar, staffing has been reduced, as we continue to streamline our operations with technology and other innovations," Gersick said. "Even in offices where we are hiring, there will be fewer employees than prior to the veto. In some cases, inevitably, this will lead to lower levels of programming, but we heard the critics and we are determined to operate on a smaller scale."

Because the State Bar board of governors was not expected to finalize its legislative program for 2000 until this month, full details about the program and the Hudson deduction are expected to be published in the January California Bar Journal.

In the fee statements mailed last month, attorneys are permitted to deduct $5 from their 2000 dues for lobbying and other activities considered "non-chargeable" under Keller.