Discipline Stats Slip in Split California Bar’s First Year

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By Joyce E. Cutler

The nation’s largest bar had some stumbles in the first year after its forced divorce, with fewer attorneys disciplined in 2017 amid policy changes, an April 30 report to the Legislature said.

The report details the first year that the California bar’s functions were split, with voluntary sections spun off in 2016 into a separate nonprofit entity for continuing education and lobbying. The state bar now focuses on discipline and admissions of the state’s more than 250,000 attorneys.

“The separation completed the State Bar’s conversion from a hybrid regulatory and trade association to a sole-purpose regulatory agency, sharpening the organization’s focus on its statutorily mandated mission: protection of the public,” Executive Director Leah Wilson said in a letter to legislative leaders, Gov. Jerry Brown (D), and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

The report also arrives as the Legislature begins to debate the annual fees bill. Even calling it a “fees bill” is a change from “dues bill,” the phrase used in the vehicle lawmakers used to exert control over a state agency that, critics charge, sometimes forgets that it’s a state agency.

Assembly Bill 3249 is scheduled for a May 8 hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee and expected to be fleshed out by the lower house, which is carrying the bill this session. Base fees would be$315. Judiciary Chairman Mark Stone (D) earlier told Bloomberg Law he didn’t expect the fee bill to be as drama-inducing as in previous years. Prior dues bills saw turf battles among the bar, California Supreme Court, and lawmakers over how much to change the bar and who should have oversight.

By the Numbers

When lawmakers meet, they’ll review the figures of a standalone bar that received 15,175 new disciplinary complaints against attorneys last year, slightly down from 15,248 the previous year.

In 2017, 1,598 complaints were pending six months or longer, compared to 1,199 in 2016. Last year it took an average 450 days from complaint filing to closure or the filing of a case against an attorney in state bar court, up from 331 the previous year. The number of cases the Office of Chief Trial Counsel closed was steady, at 115 in 2017, compared to 110 in 2016 and 115 in 2015.

Last year 315 attorneys were suspended, disbarred, or reproved, fewer than the 443 in 2016, 485 in 2015, and 465 in 2014, the report said.

“While the decline in State Bar performance on these measures in 2017 is not ideal, it is not surprising given the changes being made. While the volume and pace of change resulted in a decline in productivity in 2017, the reforms initiated and underway will result in substantial improvement in the attorney discipline system in the years to come,” the report said.

‘Tectonic’ Changes

The Office of Chief Trial Counsel, with 200 employees, receives and investigates complaints, and seeks discipline against lawyers when a professional rules violation is found. The bar last June hired a career criminal prosecutor, Steve Moawad, as chief trial counsel. Among the changes instituted was a new case prioritization system, which shifts the office’s focus from prioritizing the oldest cases first to those cases that will have the greatest impact on public protection. And new protocols will improve the likelihood that victims will receive restitution, the report said.

“In the context of far-reaching organizational changes already underway in OCTC,” the report said, “these changes constitute a tectonic shift in the work of the Office.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: S. Ethan Bowers at sbowers@bloomberglaw.com

The ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct is a joint publication of the American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility and Bloomberg BNA.

 

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