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When lawyers need help

By James O. Heiting
President, State Bar of California

James O. Heiting

I am concerned and I don’t know what to do. I am worried about my friend, the lawyer, and his ability to practice. It seems like he is “losing it” and not taking care of business, paying attention to files or clients. Who can I call? What can I do?

The State Bar has broad powers to petition the Superior Court to assist attorneys and protect clients under the Business & Professions Code. The court can cause a practice to be shut down, with all files and finances turned over to the bar in case of the attorney’s death, disbarment, resignation, suspension, abandonment of practice (B&P Code, §6180), or mental, physical or other disability (§6190), or the unauthorized practice of law (§6126.3). In fact, any concerned person can file a petition under §6180.

Petitions under these sections are usually filed ex parte and considered at an order to show cause hearing through declarations. If granted, the court issues an order, which allows the State Bar to, among other things, obtain the files, inventory them, analyze and audit the financial and trust accounts, recommend disbursements, contact clients and courts and have a receiver appointed, if necessary. The State Bar’s goal is to get the files inventoried and reviewed immediately and into clients’ hands quickly, and to notify all concerned of the cessation of the practice. It is then up to the clients to take necessary steps to engage other attorneys and/or otherwise protect their interests. The State Bar has a special unit of employees dedicated to just these activities — specialists in getting these things accomplished quickly in order to protect the interests of the clients (and, I would suppose, the attorneys). A petition is usually not filed until after in-depth interviews and such investigation as may be necessary to take actions that are appropriate. Sometimes, no action is warranted. At other times, the attorney is relieved that someone has stepped in to help him or her; they may end up getting the help that they need either to wind down their practice or to get healthy enough to resume their practice.

To start this process or inquiry, absent filing a petition under §6180, one need only contact the State Bar. The caller will probably be directed to an interviewer in a unit under a senior deputy trial counsel.

I know that this comes up from time to time. I hope you find it helpful should the issue ever arise.

Quote for the day: “Nothing is ever lost by courtesy. It is the cheapest of the pleasures; costs nothing and conveys much. It pleases him who gives and him who receives, and thus, like mercy, it is twice blessed.” Erastus Wiman.

Let’s go out and do some good.

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