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Local bars smooth over some attorney-client clashes

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

When a client thinks their lawyer isn't being attentive enough, they often do not know what to do. They might end up calling the State Bar. But in a few California counties, unique programs are giving clients a locally based option to voice their concerns and resolve disputes before they warrant State Bar discipline.

For more than 25 years, the Orange County Bar Association has been running its client relations committee, a group of 30 volunteer lawyers who review and attempt to resolve client gripes about attorneys. The Contra Costa County Bar Association also has a client relations committee, started about 10 years ago.

Cameron M. Smith, co-chair of the Orange County committee, said some of the disputes his group looks into stem from the fact that a client simply doesn't understand the rules. Those end up getting resolved with just a phone call. More serious allegations involving possible misconduct are reported to the State Bar.

“We see our role not only to protect the public and serve our clients but we also see we have an important role in improving communication between the lawyers and clients,” Smith said.

Robert Hawley, deputy executive director of the State Bar, said years ago just about every county bar association had a client grievance committee or some version of one. This was before the State Bar’s attorney discipline system was enhanced through legislative reforms to serve as a fully staffed regulatory disciplinary agency for licensed attorneys.  Prior to the late 1980’s, attorney discipline in California was largely run by attorney volunteers, often at the local county bar level. Dissatisfaction with the informality of that process resulted in legislative reforms to the discipline system that professionalized the process, created the full time State Bar Court and established the State Bar’s discipline system as we know it today. That model mirrors state licensing and disciplinary boards for other professionals.   

Hawley emphasized that attorney misconduct issues need to reach the State Bar if discipline is appropriate. Only the State Bar, acting as the administrative arm of the Supreme Court, can impose discipline. But there is still an important role for local bars – resolving grievances that do not warrant discipline.

“There's a huge benefit in local attorneys working with their peers in the county to address client dissatisfactions that do not rise to a disciplinary level,” he said. “Local citizens should be able to get help from the local bar to assist whenever they are frustrated with an attorney in the county. The State Bar and the formal discipline system should be a last resort in the perfect world. Unfortunately, local bar resources limit the ability of local bars to do as much as they would like in this area. Orange County is a good example of a program that works well for clients, attorneys and the bar.”

Typically, when a concern is brought to the Orange County bar's grievance committee, it’s reviewed by staff first. If the attorney has a history of discipline or the matter clearly presents a violation of disciplinary authorities, the local bar forwards it straight to the State Bar, Smith said. If not, committee volunteers give both client and attorney the chance to be heard. Smith and committee co-chair William Zulch review the matters and either decide to close them or send them to the committee's local volunteer attorney investigators to develop a record. Ultimately, the committee votes on the case as developed, with the name of the attorney removed at this stage, deciding whether to forward the matter to the State Bar. In cases where a grievance does not seem to warrant discipline, the committee may try to resolve the dispute with more communications to the client and attorney involved.

Of the roughly 60 cases filed with the Orange County Bar Association each year, half are assigned for investigation, and 10 to 15 are referred to the State Bar. According to Zulch, the vast majority of the complaints deal with family law matters, though there has been an influx of allegations involving loan modification fraud in the past few years.

“They run the gamut. You have some lawyers out there who, at the extreme, are using their power and influence to actually extort sexual favors from their clients. Or at least try to,” Zulch said. “Those are very clear. They should be reported to the State Bar.”

Malcolm Sher, who launched Contra Costa County's client relations committee after witnessing the success of a program operated by the Alameda County Bar Association, said his group averages eight cases a year but sometimes gets as many as 14. Members of his committee have mediation training or are on the bar's mediation panel. Cases are assigned based on the committee member's expertise.

“Clients generally don't know what to do when their lawyer and they are not communicating,” Sher said. “It provides a confidential opportunity for one of our members who doesn't have a dog in the race so to speak, to talk with the lawyer, talk with the client.”

Both Sher and Smith agreed that sometimes what clients want most is the opportunity to be heard.

“The lawyers appreciate it,” Smith added. “I think it's a service we think positively about. We think it works.” 

Hawley agreed: “This is a service to clients and to the profession at the local level. These bar associations are to be commended for their commitment to maintaining high standards of attorney performance in their communities.”