If State Bar Shuts Down, Consumers Will Be the Losers

Robert Hertzberg is a Democratic assemblyman from the San Fernando Valley

What would happen if the State Bar of California were to lock its doors for good and go home? Some might see it as the ultimate lawyer joke, but California's consumers--not its 160,000 attorneys--clearly have the most to lose if the state bar is forced to shut down this spring because Sacramento has failed to authorize funding for the organization.

Most people give little thought to the state bar and how it regulates the practice of law and protects consumers. Normally taxpayers don't have to think about this because they don't pay for it. Lawyers do.

For a decade, the state Legislature has insisted on a well-funded (and self-funded) disciplinary system to ensure that cases are handled fairly and expeditiously. Today the bar metes out discipline ranging from mandatory ethics school to suspension to disbarment. Members also finance the Client Security Fund, which reimburses clients who have lost money due to a dishonest act by their attorney. This national model of excellence faces extinction in part because of politics and in part because of the lawyers themselves. In October, Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed legislation that would have authorized the state bar to collect mandatory fees. Because the veto occurred after the Legislature had adjourned for 1997, the only practical way to restore funding this year is through urgency legislation requiring a two-thirds super-majority.

The governor said the bar was a bloated bureaucracy that took too many controversial political stands. Many members agree and most agree that change is in order. In fact, newly elected President Marc Adelman, a San Diego practitioner, initiated a series of outreach meetings with the governor's office and leadership on both sides of the aisle. Newly appointed Executive Director Steve Nissen, formerly president of Public Counsel in Los Angeles, put the bar's economic house in order by immediately rescinding pay raises, maintaining a freeze on hiring and laying off enough workers to save more than $6 million.

Even so the bar will run out of money soon and employees will get pink slips in a little more than a month. More ominously, consumers will be left with nowhere to turn. That is why I am carrying Assembly Bill 1669 to reform and strengthen the state bar.

What is now at stake goes well beyond California's attorney discipline system. The bar also licenses legal specialists, administers the bar exam, establishes continuing education and ethical requirements, reviews the qualifications of judicial candidates and distributes millions of dollars to organizations that help the poor access the justice system. My bill will clarify the mandatory and core functions of the bar and give it enough funding to ensure that the discipline system will continue to be a model.

My bill also de-politicizes the regulatory bar by transferring political and trade association functions to a voluntary association. Some say that we should dissolve the state bar and create a new governmental agency to discipline lawyers. I say it would be unfair to saddle taxpayers with even a portion of this burden.

If the system shuts down this spring, who will victimized consumers call? The governor? Legislature? A serious lawyer joke is about to be played on the public unless California's politicians work quickly to resolve their differences. I don't believe that anyone--even those who may claim victory in the short term--will laugh for long.

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