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How to complain to the State Bar

By JEFF BLEICH
President, State Bar of California

Jeff Bleich
Bleich

My New Years resolution a few years ago was to write better resolutions. I no longer pretend that I'm going to write a novel, learn to fly a plane, scale Mt. Everest and build a tree house all in the same year. I just pick one thing I can actually accomplish in a year, like flossing every day. This year, my resolution is to reduce my backlog of letters to the president, by writing back to at least one person each night. Since I'm starting the year dozens of e-mails/letters behind, here are a few answers to common complaints about the bar, and a few suggestions for how to get a speedier and better response.

Common complaints

The most common complaints I receive concern: (1) the time it takes to be admitted to the bar, (2) delays in the discipline system, (3) continuing to post "administrative suspension" on the bar's Web site for members who paid their dues late; and (4) the existence of lawyers, law, the State Bar and me. Here is some information that may help.

Admissions and moral character process

If you've passed the bar exam but haven't received your papers for admission yet, it is probably because the bar is still completing your "moral character" evaluation. For people who waited until after they passed the bar exam to submit their moral character papers, you may have to wait an excruciating six months before your admission packet is complete. As president, unfortunately, there's not much I can do to help. I don't have authority to accelerate your application or jump you ahead in the line — regardless of how nice or mean you are in your letter to me — because that would not be fair to other people who are in the queue.

To the extent that your concern is that the process takes too long for everyone — particularly applicants who clerk for the California Supreme Court, hold a top secret clearance from the National Security Council, were Eagle Scouts, etc. — the bar's Senior Executive for Admissions, Gayle Murphy, is looking into ways to speed up the process without compromising the need to ensure that members of the bar meet the ethical standards mandated by the Supreme Court for admission to practice. If you'd like to learn more about those efforts, you can save time by sending your letter directly to Ms. Murphy at ADMSF@calbar.ca.gov.

The discipline system

The vast majority of letters I get concern the State Bar discipline process. Letters from complainants generally concern decisions not to pursue their complaint, or concerns that the Office of Chief Trial Counsel is taking too long to pursue it. Letters from lawyers generally object that the complaint is being pursued too aggressively and without justification. A third set of objections deals specifically with cases that have been directed to the Alternative Discipline Program for attorneys whose misconduct is determined to be connected to a mental health problem or addiction.

Unfortunately, as president, I not only lack authority to look into the circumstances of any pending case, but I'm specifically prohibited from doing so. Again, by statute, OCTC has been given prosecutorial independence and is not subject to pressure by a president or board member who might try to influence the process. Accordingly, letters about specific cases are forwarded to Chief Trial Counsel Scott Drexel, who in turn prepares a response.

On the other hand, that does not mean I don't appreciate these letters. The fact that the president cannot help in a pending matter does not mean that a letter is ignored. To the extent that the system is too slow or lenient, or that it over-punishes some offenders or under-punishes others, this is important information for us to know. In fact, this year we will be taking a close look at ways to make the Alternative Discipline Program more transparent, and to help set benchmarks for evaluating the effectiveness of this system (read "Prosecutors want tighter rules for discipline diversion program").

If you are interested in suggesting improvements in the discipline system, please contact either Scott Drexel at OCTCSF@calbar.ca.gov or contact the Chair of our Regulation, Admissions and Discipline Committee, Holly Fujie, at hfujie@buchalter.com.

Administrative suspensions on the Web site

Most bar members know that if they fail to pay their dues on time and ignore the warning about their delinquent payment, they will be suspended by order of the Supreme Court. The suspension is lifted after the dues and late penalty have been paid. But some members do not realize their record of suspension will remain on their permanent file — and by extension on the State Bar Web site — for seven years after the date of reinstatement.

For obvious reasons, having the term "Administrative Suspension" on your Web site page for seven years is not something most attorneys want. Frankly, I don't like this rule, and I'll be recommending to the board this year that it consider modifying it as part of a general effort to improve the bar Web site overall. Until then however, the rules governing publication of administrative suspensions are fixed by regulation and the only method of getting "administrative suspension" off your Web page is by petitioning the Supreme Court for expungement.

Objections to the bar's/my existence

The main point of some letters is that the author doesn't like lawyers for a range of reasons and wants to share that with me. Most times there is not much that I can do, but if you'd like a response, here are a few suggestions: (1) Be brief. I respond to short letters faster. If you have multiple complaints or concerns, pick your top one and send it to me. (2) Be Civil. As a rule of thumb, before you actually send your letter/e-mail to me, give it a quick read-through and take out the swear words, comparisons between me and a human body part, and comparisons to me and anything that comes out of a body part. If you feel that you can't write to me without including some form of insult, then at least be creative. Using something like "you foul-smelling tundra pig" will not get you a better or quicker response, but at least it will earn you some creativity points. (3) Be considerate. This is a volunteer job, and I do it because I genuinely want to help. I take your letters with that in mind, and I hope you will send them to me in the same spirit.

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