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Keeping up with the Joneses

By James Herman
President, State Bar of California

James E. Herman 2002-03 President State Bar of California

Starting with Aaron and ending with Yale, there are nearly 800 California lawyers named Jones to keep up with. Figuring it might be interesting to find out their thinking on the pluses and minuses of the State Bar and our profession, I decided to make some cold calls to a few of them. Included were big city and small town lawyers, an out-of-state lawyer, late career professionals, a new admittee, a government lawyer, small firm lawyers and big firm lawyers.

Everyone was a pretty good sport except one poor associate who had to get a complaint out on a 45-minute deadline.

Typical of those I contacted, Truckee solo litigator Aaron Jones, admitted in 1959, feels the State Bar is doing a pretty good job. When asked what he liked about the bar, he raised the educational programs of the State Bar sections.

Workers’ compensation lawyer Yale, admitted in 1966, agreed. Yale also feels The Other Bar and the Lawyer Assistance Program for members with substance or alcohol problems are well worth the $10 contributed by every member through bar dues. “Saving lives and careers is well worth the money.”

Member number 224797, admitted May 23, 2003, and more commonly known as Kyle Jones, even thought the bar does a good job of administering an admittedly tough bar exam. A personal injury litigator with the Bakersfield Law Offices of Ralph Wegis, he is so excited about his new career that he missed Kern County’s formal swearing-in to take a deposition. He sees the web site opportunities as high impact member service.

XXXX Jones agreed to a cameo appearance even though her first name cannot be revealed because her Really Big San Francisco Law Firm requires all interviews to go through a press officer. This former journalist with more than 20 years as a corporate lawyer for life science and other tech start-ups praised the bar’s discipline system “as our greatest member benefit.”

My local friend (and the only lawyer I knew in advance) Chris Jones, a longtime Santa Barbara litigation/estate planning lawyer, noted, “There used to be a perception the bar was not spending wisely, but I think the bar is now staying much truer to its mandate.”

He did question whether the discipline system was tough enough based on discipline reports. He also does not think much of the California Lawyer magazine. When I pointed out CL was not a State Bar publication and that his interview would be in the Bar Journal, he was quick to point out he liked any publication carrying his quotes.

Like Aaron and Yale, he appreciates the sections and added, “I never thought of going to the State Bar Annual Meeting until last year, but it’s the best educational value there is — no matter what your specialty, the programming is top notch.”

Yale and Chris also value specialty certification in workers’ compensation and estate planning, respectively, for marketing and public protection value. Yale added he was the first chair of the State Bar’s Board of Legal Specialization and argued the bar petition to the Supreme Court to add the program. “Rose Bird was afraid certification would not be inclusive, but actually the opposite is true,” he said.

Organized bar experience among the members I talked to ranged from Yale’s to XXXX’s, who has never been a bar joiner. Aaron was proud of board membership in the Truckee bar.

Just for comparison, I ran “Jones” and “Arizona” on our Member Access advanced search and came up with San Jose refugee and Phoenix labor lawyer Robert K. Jones of Quarles Brody Streich Lang.

Robert pays $390 to California in dues and $410 to Arizona. Arizona requires 15 hours of MCLE per year versus 25 every three years for California. He values his California membership and sees the license as an important benefit in and of itself.

What troubles our members? The economy. As XXXX put it, “we have not seen the bottom yet here in the Bay Area.” Although the dues are significant, no one felt they are too high and everyone was pleased the dues will stay at the same level for another year.

Quality of life was also an issue. Yale, with a daughter in a big firm and a son coincidentally named Aaron at Georgetown Law School, worries the billable hour is making slaves of our young lawyers.

And Aaron from Truckee sang the praises of small-town relaxed practice. Yale, on the phone from his New Mexico retreat, added he is now practicing on a part-time schedule and loving it. Members also are concerned about the climb in professional liability premiums (we are working on this) and the breakdown in collegiality.

Overall, it was hard to trigger a criticism of the bar even by invitation. Of course there is discontent out there. Matt from Calavaras County at an event last month was quick to point out his feeling members never hear from the bar except when we ask for money or discipline someone. (Calavaras County Bar Association President Sheron McCarthy was a great host for this, by the way). On the other hand, my unannounced drop-in on an Angels Camp family law solo drew positive comments for the job we do.

My philosophy has always been to provide member service one member at a time from the top down.

Let me close with my favorite example:

“Dear President Herman,” wrote Dale, a member practicing in Pocatello, Idaho. “I am outraged by the ARROGANCE and RUDENESS of the State Bar. See enclosed, unsigned! I was accused of passing an NSF check to pay my bar dues. What really happened is I stapled my check to the dues statement and some State Bar staffer ripped off the routing number when they were separated so the check would not clear my bank. As you can see, this is entirely the fault of the State Bar. I DEMAND THAT THIS BE TAKEN CARE OF IMMEDIATELY AND I DEMAND AN APOLOGY FROM THE STATE BAR!” To a litigator, DEMANDS! are a part of life. So, using the telephone number on the top of the State Bar form letter, I got through immediately to a State Bar staffer and asked how the problem could be solved (No, I didn’t identify myself as president). Politely, she informed me all I had to do was send another check.

Relieved for Dale, I called his Pocatello number identifying myself. There was a pause. “You mean you’re the State Bar president, the guy I wrote to?” “Yes,” I said. “Heck,” he said, “I didn’t think anybody would really get back to me. I was just venting.”

“Well, Dale,” I said, “I have taken care of your problem and I apologize on behalf of the State Bar for any inconvenience.” There was a pause. “Well,” he said, “if you ever get to Pocatello, I would love to take you to lunch.” The State Bar now has a friend in Pocatello, Idaho.

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