California Bar Journal
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A sad time for public protection
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President, State Bar of California
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Marc AdelmanThe number of calls and correspondence concerning lawyer discipline that find their way to my small office is ever increasing with each passing day.

Clearly, the financial inability of the State Bar to undertake new discipline matters is escalating into a terrible problem.

With the current standoff in the legislature, the problem is, in fact, bound to grow to mass proportions. In light of this worsening scenario, I urge our legislators to show some leadership and end the dispute over the future of our State Bar.

Nothing short of public confidence, trust and protection are at stake.

As I write this column, the State Bar is headed for a virtual shutdown. More than 400 State Bar employees lost their jobs in the past two months; no more than a bare-bones staff is remaining.

But the funding crisis has already taken a toll. The bar has shut down its consumer complaint hotline, which typically responds to 140,000 calls a year and has stopped investigating new complaints.

Do Californians even care?

The number of frantic calls that have been pouring into the State Bar and my law office every day offer clear evidence that many are, indeed, devastated by this recent turn of events.

Consumers who feel they have been victimized by attorneys are finding they no longer have anywhere to turn for assistance.

Those in the know realize that the standoff is not the result of the State Bar staking a position in the sand. To the contrary.

The bar clearly recognizes the current economic and political realities. We have demonstrated an obvious presence in Sacramento and a willingness to work toward a resolution.

Still, the situation continues to be a long string of broken promises; some legislators are not even returning our phone calls; some refuse to meet on the issue. And the sad truth is, there really is no end in sight.

History has shown us the consequences of allowing our attorney discipline to fall behind. In the 1980s, an expanding attorney population (and corresponding number of complaints) pushed the bar’s largely volunteer-run discipline system to the brink of collapse. The backlog grew to some 4,000 cases; disciplinary matters took as long as five years to reach a resolution.

However, a public outcry inspired the legislature to increase attorney fees, enabling the bar to form the now nationally renowned State Bar Court in 1989 and revamp the system to better meet the needs of a growing profession.

As a result, the backlog shrank--until recent events. The authorized fee for 1989 will certainly exceed the authorized fee for 1999, even though we will have more than 40,000 additional attorneys to regulate.

Those monumental efforts, however, now appear to be unraveling at a rapid rate. The backlog is steadily growing once again. In fact, it is growing so fast that I have grave concerns about the system’s future.

The bottom line is that the current proposal to set attorney fees below $358 would not provide sufficient funds for maintaining an effective discipline system. At the same time, the system is losing ground every day that the bar goes without funding.

Attorneys and members of the public alike suffer from the political brinksmanship currently under way in the legislature. Yet promises made long ago continue to go unfulfilled, and some legislators do not even seem willing to work any further toward a resolution.

I suggest that it’s high time that the legislators put aside their personal and political differences and salvage what’s left of California’s 71-year-old State Bar--before even more damage is done.