Accelerating reform at the State Bar
By James P. Fox
President, the State Bar of California
When I began my term as State Bar president in October 2016, I made it clear this agency is committed to reforms that will allow us to better serve the 39 million Californians we’re charged with protecting. When people need an attorney, it’s often at some of the most difficult and vulnerable times for them. All Californians deserve access to a high-quality, ethical attorney to help them navigate legal issues they are facing.
Now that 2017 is in full swing, I’d like to recap recent changes and outline our plans for this year. I expect this will be another transformative year for the bar as we continue shifting from an agency with a dual mission of helping both lawyers and the public to one that is primarily focused on serving the public.
We should be clear. By statute, public protection is the highest priority of the State Bar. A new executive leadership team was hired by the Board of Trustees in 2015 to bring clarity to this mission and to increase the bar’s transparency and effectiveness.
One theme of reform has been to view the bar’s activities through a lens of public protection. In doing so, we have recognized the challenges of supporting a professional association, valuable though that is for supporting lawyers who do ultimately protect the public.
As a result, the bar faces difficult, but important, conversations about whether to separate the Sections, which provide practice-specific educational opportunities to lawyers, into a separate entity.
Recent history provides useful context.
In 2016, the bar fully embraced new transparency measures. The California Public Records Act and Bagley-Keene Act now apply and have changed the status quo. The board has demonstrated its commitment to this new openness by implementing Bagley-Keene’s open meeting rules ahead of schedule and webcasting its meetings.
Improvements in the attorney discipline system (which handled over 40,000 calls in 2016 leading to the disbarment of nearly 200 lawyers for misconduct), and the Client Security Fund (which paid out $8 million to 1,000 people in 2016), are powerful examples of progress. We have also established a clear protocol for investigating the more than 600 complaints about the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) received in 2016 to ensure cases are referred to law enforcement more quickly. And there is more to come, as we develop partnerships to protect those most vulnerable to fraud.
For all of this, I thank the State Bar’s employees. They recognize our major public protection mission and are working hard to embrace new ways to achieve excellence. None of this would be possible without the hard work and dedication of our staff.
But we won’t rest on our laurels. Working with our oversight bodies – the Supreme Court and the Legislature – this important progress will continue. The public’s protection requires no less.
Among the 2017 highlights to anticipate:
Separation of the Sections
Separating the Sections from the State Bar will enhance focus on the agency’s regulatory and public protection work.
Improvements to the attorney discipline system
● A new Chief Trial Counsel will arrive shortly.
● The Office of Chief Trial Counsel will receive an additional $3.4 million for investigating and prosecuting attorney misconduct, improving efficiency and effectiveness.
● We will improve how we address harm to the public by how we prioritize attorney misconduct investigations and prosecutions.
● We will improve the bar’s ability to effectively investigate, prosecute, adjudicate and report on attorney misconduct by updating the case management system for the bar’s discipline system.
● We will co-ordinate with local prosecutors and federal law enforcement to enhance protection for vulnerable immigrants, who are victimized by those unauthorized or incompetent to provide immigration law advice.
Overhaul of attorney ethics rules
This year the bar completes a major review of attorney ethics rules. The board has already approved a new rule of professional conduct to specifically address prosecutor misconduct. Other proposed changes would strengthen rules against discrimination and harassment and draw a bright line ban on sexual relations with clients. The final package of new and amended rules will come to the Board of Trustees for review by the end of March and sent to the Supreme Court for final approval.
New training for first-year attorneys
The board has also directed staff to develop a new educational program, offering up to 10 hours of required instruction for first year attorneys on ethics and the new rules of professional conduct. This timely initiative implements one of the most important recommendations of the Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform.
Examining the bar exam
The State Bar will undergo a careful study of the California Bar Exam in light of the sharp decline in California’s overall bar passage rate from 56 percent to 43 percent in the last three years. The board and the Committee of Bar Examiners are open to exploring what changes may be needed.
Promoting access to justice
The State Bar supports access to legal services as a core part of our public protection mission, in order to support low-income people who too often have no choice but to navigate the legal system alone.
The bar provides approximately $30 million in grants annually to legal aid organizations throughout California. These grants support groups that address immigration needs, connect veterans to services, prevent homelessness, keep kids in school, protect elders from fraud and abuse, and other critical legal assistance.
The bar also recently released a statement encouraging attorneys to provide pro bono service and to support legal aid.
Public access to State Bar information
A newly redesigned and mobile-friendly website launches in May so that information about the attorney discipline system and ethics rules for attorneys are more easily accessible. The public will be able to more easily find and navigate the State Bar’s website to access information about their legal rights, how to prevent fraud and what they can do if their attorney has taken advantage of them, such as how to file a complaint and how to apply for reimbursement from the Client Security Fund.
The Governance in the Public Interest Task Force will also likely identify additional reforms and improvements. The task force will focus on a few core areas in developing its May 15 report, including: defining public protection, reviewing governance structures and reviewing board and committee structures. We also welcome the input of the special master appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee the court’s interim fee assessment order.
I look forward to the hard work ahead and that we make continued progress toward our goal of making sure that the State Bar is the best public protection agency it can be.