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State Bar Monitor Sees ‘Best-in-Nation’ Disciplining of Lawyers

Times Staff Writer

Critical problems continue to plague the State Bar’s system for disciplining attorneys but recent reforms and an expected infusion of funds will soon make California’s the premier system in the nation, according to a state-appointed monitor.

Robert C. Fellmeth, a San Diego attorney appointed by Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp to study ways of reducing the backlog of complaints against lawyers, called the current system of dealing with unethical attorneys “a mess.”

In the third of a series of progress reports on efforts to improve the system, Fellmeth said Thursday that the number of backlogged consumer complaints has actually risen since his last progress report.

From March to July, 1988, the backlog increased from 1,300 cases to more than 2,500. There is an additional 7,000 cases pending that may warrant discipline, according to Fellmeth.

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The backlog has impeded the prosecution of serious violations and “well over 1,000 attorneys who may deserve disbarment or substantial discipline . . . remain in unfettered practice,” Fellmeth reported.

Lacks Resources

The system also suffers from a serious lack of resources and structural defects that hamper attempts at reform, he said.

However, recently passed legislation, encompassing recommendations made by Fellmeth, will mean a “radical transformation” of the system, he said in an interview after the report was made public Thursday.

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The legislation includes provisions that would increase dues for all State Bar members, adding an additional $11 million to finance improvements in the system and would establish a panel of six to 10 administrative law judges to hear cases and a three-member appellate court to handle appeals.

The legislation must still be signed by Gov. George Deukmejian.

“I think when the funding and structural changes are accomplished, and they will be when these bills are signed, California will have one hell of a system, far and above, any other in the nation,” Fellmeth said.

“The problems we are still seeing are the effect of the lag factor between agreed reforms and the time it takes to see those reforms have an impact. Once everything is in place you will see the backlogs dissipate and critical improvements.”

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Fellmeth praised the current leadership of the State Bar, saying it had reformed its administrative procedures to an “extraordinary degree” and counted improved public outreach, computerization of complaint tracking and better access to Bar records as major improvements.

Offers Other Recommendations

Fellmeth also offered a number of other recommendations, including mandatory malpractice insurance or expansion of the client security fund, which compensates consumers for money lost through an attorney’s incompetence, a continuing education program that would include periodic retesting and an aggressive alcohol and drug abuse program.

Both the mandatory malpractice insurance provision and continuing education program were first proposed by the State Bar two years ago but were defeated in the Legislature.

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State Bar President P. Terry Anderlini, reacting to Fellmeth’s report, said he is pleased that Fellmeth “hailed the work of the Bar and its efforts at reform.”

But he expressed “annoyance” at the continued criticism of the legal profession.

“With all the focus on reforms in the legal profession I wouldn’t like the public to think we are the only profession with problems monitoring itself,” Anderlini said. "(Attorneys) have more money going to improve our disciplinary system than any other profession in the nation. This is the first major reform in the California State Bar in its 61-year history. I’m proud of our attorneys.”


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