|Priorities I and II getting the most attention.
Priority I includes
cases which present the greatest risk of harm to clients, are high profile, or are likely
to result in at least a year of suspension. They include misconduct such as
misappropriation of client funds and multiple rule violations.
Cases considered Priority II include criminal violations and matters which will lead to
discipline ranging from a reproval to a year of suspension, such as failure to perform
competently or charging an unconscionable fee.
Priorities III and
IV are referred to another agency and closed altogether. These include some fee disputes,
unauthorized law practice by disbarred or resigned attorneys or non-lawyers, court
sanctions and isolated instances of misconduct.
"We can't do 100 percent of the work with 65 percent of the money and staff,"
said Victoria Molloy, assistant chief trial counsel in the Los Angeles enforcement office.
Molloy used to supervise about 120 investigators and attorneys; she now heads a group
"We've carved out some things we can't do anymore," she said. "Obviously
it's frustrating, but it's the reality of being prosecutors."
Molloy emphasizes the positive, though, saying she's "thrilled" to be back in
business. "I keep telling people we have to eat the elephant one bite at a
A reasonable approach
Former State Bar Court judge Ellen Peck said she believes the discipline office is
"doing what prosecutors should do.
"They're being reasonable by closing cases that do not warrant further
investigation or a further investment of personnel resources or money, cases that are not
even questionable in terms of culpability. I think they're doing a good job."
A frequently heard word among discipline workers in both Los Angeles and San Francisco
is "triage" - the art of placing complaints in one of the four priorities and
deciding what to do with them. Virtually everyone, from complaint analysts to
investigators and attorneys, is reading complaints or reviewing files.
While the system was shut down, hundreds of cases before the State Bar Court were
abated. Attorneys are now re-examining those and filing motions to unabate some matters.
Suspended investigations are being revisited. The thousands of complaints warehoused by
the bar during the shutdown are under review.
Molloy says she believes it will take about a year to get the system back in sync.
Freymann, a bar attorney in Los Angeles for 10 years, returned after being laid off to
find seven boxes of files in her office.
Now on a team which handles probation violations, mini-reinstatements and referrals
from other states where an attorney has been disciplined, Von Freymann says she suspects a
significant amount of attorney misconduct may have occurred during the shutdown.
But so far, she's not overwhelmed by her caseload. "When the dust settles, I think
things will be pretty much the same," she said. "We'll resolve more of the
lesser conduct cases and get things out of the system faster."
Nancy Watson, another
longtime lawyer in the Los Angeles enforcement office who is now handling high-profile
matters, believes the new system of priorities will be effective. "It seems to me
it's going to work a lot better with the reorganization," she said.
But those who specialized in minor misconduct, like 12-year investigator Ysabel
Naetzel, feel frustrated. She used to deal with matters such as disputes between attorneys
over settlement drafts and improper communication with a represented party.
The issues were not
particularly difficult but they were time-consuming, Naetzel said. "More than half
the time we were able to resolve these," she said. "We clarified things, and it
was a learning experience for the lawyer. Now, we don't have time to talk to them."
She also worries that "if lawyers know we'll brush them off, they'll continue to
Attorney Karen Gorman agrees that in the past, she could spend a great deal more time
on cases. Letters were customized, "almost like a mini-decision," she said. Now,
they're much more standardized.
"In the past, we've been extremely customer service-oriented," Gorman said.
"I hope (the new system) doesn't compromise our ability to do that."
Bar officials insist the public is being protected from scheming or incompetent
"We do the best we can do and get prosecutable cases to enforcement as quickly as
possible," said Virgo, whose staff of 65 is down to 38. "There is no less
protection to the public."
He agrees that the "educational component" of the system is gone for now, and
less time spent on the phone means fewer referrals and less help for both clients and
"If I had my
druthers," Virgo said, "I'd have 18 people on the phones full-time, giving
immediate help. But we never chase people away."
Investigators, who feel their numbers are too low, seem particularly frustrated by an
inability to pursue cases. "When you reduce the kind of cases that come through the
system, it's kind of like telling people to go away," said Bill Stephens, an
investigator in San Francisco. "I don't know if the public is less protected, but the
avenues of redress through the State Bar will be more limited in the future. I think
people who come to us with a problem will be increasingly told, We can't help you.'
Said Naetzel, "I can appreciate what we did before. It worked. We did try to
protect the public and we helped attorneys. We performed a service. Now you feel like
you're not fully doing your job.
"I hope we can get our funding back."