Dan Walters

Dan Walters: State Bar trying again to expand enforcement powers

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The State Bar is something of an odd duck – a quasi-private, quasi-public entity that simultaneously regulates the legal profession and acts as a trade association and political advocate for lawyers.

It’s as if the California Medical Association, the doctors’ trade organization, had merged with the California Medical Board, which licenses and regulates physicians.

Why the State Bar has those two somewhat disparate, conflict-laden functions is lost in history.

Nevertheless, when it seeks legislation, there’s always uncertainty over whether it’s protecting the public from shoddy legal practices or enhancing its members’ finances.

That issue arose last year in Assembly Bill 888, carried by Sacramento Democrat Roger Dickinson, which would have empowered the State Bar to levy civil fines against those it deemed to be unlawfully practicing law.

The State Bar and Dickinson insisted that new powers were needed to protect unsuspecting consumers from those offering legal services without being licensed lawyers.

Practicing law without a license is already illegal, as it should be, but the State Bar said that persuading prosecutors to file cases is cumbersome. Therefore, it wanted power to pursue cases (and collect revenue) itself.

The bill drew sharp opposition from sub-professional groups, such as firms providing do-it-yourself legal forms. They saw it as a power play aimed at squeezing them out of business with threats of fines so that lawyers could obtain more clients and more money.

The California Association of Legal Document Assistants, for instance, said AB 888 “is little more than a cleverly designed effort by the Bar to seek additional revenue from non-members of the Bar.”

Gov. Jerry Brown evidently agreed, because he vetoed AB 888, saying, “We already have adequate enforcement mechanisms and remedies to stop the unlicensed practice of law through the existing powers of the State Bar or through the authority of the attorney general and local prosecutors to bring civil and criminal actions.”

That, however, wasn’t the end of the story.

Just before the Legislature left town for an 11-day spring break this month, Dickinson took over a moribund Assembly bill sitting in the Senate, stripped its contents and inserted a new version of AB 888, bypassing the usual committee process.

The somewhat sneaky action caught opponents by surprise and as the legislative session resumed on Monday they were scrambling to marshal opposition. With the revision, Assembly Bill 852 needs just two quick votes to land on Brown’s desk again.

Is the State Bar, in its quest for more power, truly acting in the interests of consumers, as it contends, or is it trying to boost revenue for lawyers when, as the Bar acknowledges, it has a glut of unemployed members?

That’s always a question when the State Bar calls on the Capitol.