California Bar Journal
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Demythologizing the State Bar
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President, State Bar of California
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Palmer Madden, President, State Bar of CaliforniaMyths about the State Bar abound. So many, it takes two columns to counter them. The first installment follows, with the second scheduled to appear in February.

Myth Number 1: The Big Firms Run the State Bar

How many times have we all heard that the Big Firms run the State Bar? The charge is usually leveled by someone who is trying to make the point that the State Bar is “one of them” and not responsive to the needs of practitioners in small firms. Some level the charge as part of an argument that the State Bar is being run as a conspiracy to make life difficult for solo practitioners.

Some conspiracy. Not a single member of the Board of Governors works in a large firm. None of the senior staff comes from a large firm background. It is true that some members of the board worked at one time in large firms. I was once an associate in a large firm, then a partner in a three-person firm, then a partner in a large firm and I am now a sole practitioner. But, if the State Bar is a conspiracy by the large firms, it is a mighty peculiar conspiracy. The truth is that both the board and the staff of the State Bar are very interested in tailoring our programs to meet the needs of those in smaller firms.

Myth Number 2: The State Bar Does Nothing for Me

The myth that the State Bar does nothing for most practitioners is the most widespread myth of all. It also is a most wrong-footed perception. If you are an attorney, every day the State Bar is working for you. In order for there to be a legal profession, there must be a State Bar. If you reflect on what is at the core of the legal profession, you will find that the two core values are competence and loyalty. Ours is a learned profession: attorneys must be knowledgeable about the law or they cannot help their clients. Our profession also demands that attorneys are loyal to their clients, keeping client confidences sacred and avoiding conflicts.

The State Bar is the guardian of these core values: it administers the bar exam and promulgates the rules of professional conduct. If we did not have a State Bar, we would not be attorneys and there would be no laws prohibiting others from practicing law. More than 90 percent of the State Bar’s budget is devoted precisely to these two key efforts. So, every day you work for a client, the State Bar’s efforts have made this possible.

Myth Number 3: The State Bar charges too much

Not a single attorney in our great state likes paying their dues. But those that charge that our dues structure is too high are just plain wrong. If you compare what attorneys pay in California to what other professionals pay, such as physicians or engineers, attorneys pay just about the same amount and yet they get more from their regulators.

California’s discipline system includes a comprehensive set of preventive and remedial programs, such as the ethics hotline, ethics school and fee arbitration. To have the benefit of similar programs, doctors have to pay a voluntary professional association in addition to their licensing fee. The $345 fee that our members will pay in 2001 will place California ninth in the nation in terms of the amount paid by members.

In California, unlike all but a few states, we are required by the legislature to pay not only for a professional prosecutorial staff, but also to pay for our “trial” and appellate court. In many states, volunteers carry out prosecutions. We tried that in California and found that our volunteers were swamped and a large backlog developed.

Palmer Madden can be reached at