Dan Walters

Opinion: Big changes are needed in California’s State Bar

Sergio Garcia, an undocumented immigrant who passed the California bar exam on his first try, near his home in Durham, Calif., Sept. 13, 2013. The California Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 2, 2014, that Garcia and other immigrants living in the U.S. illegally can be admitted to the State Bar and practice law.
Sergio Garcia, an undocumented immigrant who passed the California bar exam on his first try, near his home in Durham, Calif., Sept. 13, 2013. The California Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 2, 2014, that Garcia and other immigrants living in the U.S. illegally can be admitted to the State Bar and practice law. NYT

The state licenses and regulates dozens of professions and occupations – doctors, nurses, accountants, engineers, architects, dentists, contractors, barbers, cosmetologists, just to name some.

Lawyers are conspicuously absent from that list.

To practice law in California, one must be a member of the State Bar, a quasi-public, quasi-private entity based in San Francisco and supported by mandatory “dues” set by the Legislature.

However, the State Bar is not merely another licensing and regulatory agency. It also functions as the political arm of the legal profession, with lobbyists working the Capitol on a variety of political policy issues affecting lawyers.

It’s as if the Medical Board of California, the state agency that licenses physicians, were merged with the California Medical Association, the profession’s political arm.

That would be an obvious conflict of interest for doctors, so why is it acceptable for lawyers?

A couple of decades ago, then-Gov. Pete Wilson refused to sign a routine bill on bar dues, arguing that the State Bar was too overtly political and insisting that its regulatory and political functions be separated.

Wilson didn’t win that battle, but he was right, and the two roles are still a sore point, particularly among lawyers who dislike the State Bar’s political positions.

It underlies a name-calling blowup in the State Bar centering on Joe Dunn, a onetime state senator and, ironically, head of the California Medical Association, who was hired as the State Bar’s executive director four years ago, apparently to shore up the State Bar’s clout in Sacramento.

Dunn was fired last month after the State Bar board commissioned an investigation that found that he had spent money improperly. Shortly before being fired, however, he filed an anonymous whistleblower complaint that the State Bar was concealing an immense backlog of ethics cases against lawyers. After being fired, he filed a lawsuit alleging “egregious improprieties.”

And that’s just the barest summary of a nasty barrage of charges and countercharges roiling the agency.

So we have lawyers fighting lawyers over the direction of the organization that regulates lawyers, both sides running up big legal bills. It’s high time, therefore, for some fundamental changes.

It’s time for the regulatory functions of the State Bar to come under the Department of Consumer Affairs, the umbrella for professional licensing agencies, with professional civil servants, answerable to the governor, performing its regulatory duties.

There’s no rationale for it to continue as a quasi-public, quasi-private entity.

It’s also time for the legal profession to stop hiding its political activities behind the State Bar’s facade and emulate other professions by establishing a voluntary trade association like the California Medical Association and dozens of other professional groups.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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