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State Lawyers Get on Their Own Case : California Bar pushes a commendable anti-drug, anti-misconduct program

It is estimated that substance abuse is the cause of half of all misconduct cases handled by the State Bar of California. Faced with that frightening fact, its president, Alan Rothenberg, and his colleagues are backing a bill now before the state Senate to institute innovative programs for policing unethical behavior.

“If you figure that one out of 10 Americans has a substance abuse problem and there are 122,000 lawyers in the California bar, then as many as 12,000 may have a problem,” reasons Rothenberg. “Even if it’s only 5%, that’s 6,100 lawyers and that’s too many.”

If Sacramento signs off on the proposed increase in dues charged to bar members, the professional association can step up chemical dependency counseling referrals and provide insurance to cover the cost of treatment, among other innovations.

Also to be financed by the fee hike is a network of volunteer mentors who will help foundering attorneys nip potential ethical breaches in the bud. This first-tier disciplinary program would include continuing education on ethical concerns such as substance abuse and conflicts of interest, and on daily sources of stress such as office management and client-attorney relations.

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The proposed bill would not only work to prevent misconduct cases, it would also put muscle into the bar’s in-house efforts to police the legal profession: The changes would for the first time allow the bar to reveal the names of attorneys under investigation if there is a compelling reason to publicize a case.

Attorneys are realizing that they might save themselves time, money and bitter frustration through stepped-up in-house policing of a profession the public often perceives as inflexible and intractable. Resolutely implemented, the California attorneys’ ideas could go a long way toward boosting their public image and conducting themselves more professionally, providing a model for other organizations that need to stop acting solely in their own defense.


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