The 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
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
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 bars 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 systems 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
I suggest that its high time that the legislators put aside their personal and
political differences and salvage whats left of Californias 71-year-old State
Bar--before even more damage is done.