California Bar Journal
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Report shows with law firms, size does matter

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Diane Karpman"Access to justice" has been a rallying cry for lawyers for decades. It is acutely important to the poor and almost poor, the vast majority of whom are represented by small firm and solo practitioners. Many of these lawyers only wish they knew when their cases were becoming "pro bono" opportunities.

The recent State Bar Report, pursuant to Senate Bill 143 (available at verifies that small firm and solo practitioners are investigated and prosecuted in larger numbers. In other words, the lawyers who answer the cries of the underprivileged are far more likely to be disciplined, and it cannot be dismissed as mere "anecdotal evidence."

The legislatively mandated study relied on a 1994 Rand Report that indicated that 23 percent of California lawyers are classified as solo practitioners, and attorneys in small firms (two to 10 lawyers) account for 33 percent. Solo practitioners receive 54 percent of the inquiries coming to the bar and 68 percent of investigations. Further, more than 78 percent of all completed disciplinary cases involved solos, a sizeable jump at each level. Small firm lawyers were recipients of 35 percent of the inquiries, 26 percent of the investigations and only 19 percent of the disciplinary cases. For large firm lawyers, the comparable figures for inquiries and investigations are 11 percent and 5 percent, and account for a mere 2.4 percent of completed disciplinary cases.

Something is terribly wrong with this picture, because it is small firms and solos who serve the poor and almost poor. A critical issue in understanding these numbers is the nature of the client. Large corporations, financial institutions, and carriers seek their mirror images for representation. They hire large firms. Institutional clients rarely waste resources on a bar complaint. Somehow they prefer the money damages available in the civil arena, or they take their gripes to the "management committee."

Small/solo practitioners represent much "riskier" clients. Those who are injured or broken-hearted are justifiably grumpy or depressed and need hand-holding. A client who is missing fingers or is in constant pain (and medicated) as a result of an accident is not a happy camper. A woman whose middle-aged husband has run off with a "trophy wife" is in despair. They have an absolute right to be unhappy. However, it is important to remember that their broad-spectrum complaints can go off like pineapple bombs and hit their lawyers too. "Family unification" too often occurs when former spouses join together in a State Bar complaint.

Complaints can be filed by clients, courts and other lawyers. Others are State Bar-initiated. How many of those involved large firms? We need to figure out exactly what factors are different in the different-sized practices and make that support available to every lawyer.

We are all members of an honored and learned profession. When we took our oaths, we agreed to provide justice for everyone. We all know that access to justice is a critical issue in society, but it is the small firms and solos that provide that access and are thus far more likely to be the focus of disciplinary charges.

Los Angeles attorney Diane Karpman may be reached at