California Bar Journal
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Board votes to keep MCLE hours at 25 over 3-year period
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Staff Writer
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Rejecting several key recommendations by a panel appointed two years ago to study the State Bar's continuing education requirements, the board of governors voted to keep the hours low and to leave intact two controversial subject areas.

By a vote of 9-6, the board decided to keep the MCLE requirement for active attorneys at 25 hours over three years, the lowest requirement of any bar association in the country and the lowest in California for every profession except pest controllers.

By a more lopsided 13-1 margin, it voted to continue to require one hour each of education in the areas of substance abuse and elimination of bias and an additional four hours of ethics study.

The MCLE Evaluation Commission, appointed in the summer of 1999, had recommended the elimination of the substance abuse requirement and an increase in the hours from 25 to 30, although it acknowledged the legislature recently reduced the hours and it would likely be pointless to seek a change in Sacramento.

The commission also recommended eliminating all exemptions (for elected officials, law school professors, and state and federal employees) to the requirements and the board unanimously rejected that suggestion.

Struggling with evidence that many California lawyers object either to the subject requirements - particularly substance abuse and the elimination of bias - or to the quality of courses, bar governors decided in the end to do what they thought was right.

"I know I'm gonna take heat on this issue," said James Herman of Santa Barbara, pointing to results of a commission survey which found that 77 percent of those polled said substance abuse courses are of little or no use.

But he concluded, "This is the right thing to do. There are some issues we have to stand up on and not be popular."

Incoming bar president Karen Nobumoto noted there is a proven nexus between substance abuse and attorney discipline and said, "Two hours in three years? If we can't take the heat on that, we don't belong in this job."

Although several board members initially seemed disinclined to continue the substance abuse requirement, they were persuaded by testimony from the bar's chief prosecutor and Lawrence J. Kuhlman, vice president of The Other Bar, a State Bar-affiliated program for alcoholic lawyers.

One thousand members strong, The Other Bar holds 30 to 40 meetings a week and offers MCLE courses. Kuhlman said presenters routinely receive one to three calls after each course from individuals looking for help, and that 80 percent of the calls to the organization's intake line in southern California are not related to discipline.

"Our message is, 'There's hope,'" Kuhlman said. Intervention prior to bar discipline offers huge cost savings to the bar, he said, adding, "To take away this weapon will hinder our efforts" to help lawyers avoid discipline.

Several board members said they were persuaded by Mike Nisperos, the chief bar prosecutor who is himself a former drug addict. He asked how the bar measures the success of the substance abuse courses, wondering whether one life saved makes a program worthwhile.

James Otto, a governor from Los Angeles, said Nisperos changed his thinking. Although he believed the board should respond to unhappy members forced to take an unpopular course, he said the substance abuse requirement should be preserved "if we can help one or two or five or six people."

Despite its votes, the board acknowledged widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of many MCLE courses and asked for a review of the program to rectify quality control problems.

The board also received a mid-year financial report indicating a decline in revenue, primarily in the areas of member dues (almost 4,000 lawyers had not paid their dues at the end of July, compared to about 1,000 in most years), investment income and rent revenue from the bar's headquarters building in San Francisco. The investment portfolio and rental revenue are both down due to the slowdown of the economy, said Ron Albers, chair of the board's administration and finance committee.

Despite a less rosy forecast than the bar had a year ago, Pat Dixon of Los Angeles asked the board to pass a resolution that budget planners "use their best efforts" to keep next year's dues at the current $345 level. "We sent a wonderful message with the dues reduction last year and I think it should stay there," Dixon said.

But his proposal was defeated on an 11-5 vote after several board members said they were concerned about setting a dues target before financial planning is completed.

Albers reminded the board that it voted last year to roll dues back by $50 because the bar had a surplus as it continued to replace staff laid off following the 1997 veto of its funding authorization.

"Last year was a one-time rebate of a surplus," Albers said.

In the recently enacted fee bill, the legislature authorized the bar to collect up to $390 for 2002 and 2003.