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A new leader takes the State Bar helm

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Joseph Dunn
Joe Dunn took over as the State Bar's executive director last month, vowing to focus on public protection. PHOTO BY DARRYL BUSH

As a veteran plaintiff’s lawyer and two-term state senator, Joe Dunn possesses the legal skills and political acumen indispensable for smoothing the waters between the State Bar and California’s legislative and executive branches. With the agency in Sacramento’s crosshairs, the new executive director leaves no doubt he’ll put public protection at the forefront of its regulatory activities.

“Among our many challenges going forward,” Dunn said, “I share the belief of the legislative and executive branches and our governing board that public protection is first and foremost for the State Bar.”

Dunn is taking over the bar’s top job, succeeding Judy Johnson, who will step down Feb. 1 after 10 years as executive director. Acknowledging that the post brings with it a steep learning curve, the 52-year-old lifelong Democrat knows he must master “the intricacies of our internal operations.” He’ll spend the early part of his tenure familiarizing himself with the bar’s budget, discipline system, services to members and governance — all issues that arise in predictable cycles.

Dunn already has a lock on how the political branches connect, and where the regulatory bar fits in. Although it falls under the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, Dunn said, it is “closely intertwined” with the executive and legislative branches, not only for approval of lawyer dues but for policy matters relating to the practice of law. “As such,” he said, “understanding how the political branches work in practice versus in theory is critical in keeping our State Bar at the forefront of regulating the legal profession.”

When Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bar’s dues bill last year, he criticized the agency for a state audit that found inefficiencies in the discipline operation, a former employee’s embezzlement and the unauthorized disclosure of the rating of a candidate for the appellate bench. Schwarzenegger said he would not sign dues measure “because the State Bar cannot continue with business as usual.” When the legislature approved the 2011 dues, it included a requirement that a governance task force be created to improve the bar’s public protection efforts. The provision was included, according to an analysis by the Senate Judiciary Committee, in response to “concerns that recent actions taken by the State Bar Board of Governors have not sufficiently taken into account the protection of the public.” The task force now meets regularly to address those concerns.

The backlog of disciplinary cases in particular has raised lawmakers’ concerns that the bar “may not be as focused on our public protection responsibility as we are on other aspects of the legal profession,” Dunn said. “We must wrestle this issue to the ground immediately. If I find there are deficiencies in how we approach the discipline process, addressing those deficiencies will be my number one priority going forward.”

Dunn said he doesn’t know at this point if dues are too high, too low or just right, but he plans to study the issue quickly. And he’s looking at the perceived tension between the bar’s regulatory and member service roles. “In my view, the two are not at odds, provided we all recognize that our number one priority is public protection,” he said. “While that mission can never be compromised, I believe it is appropriate for our State Bar to support the legal profession to insure the delivery of high quality legal services.”

To that end, he expressed worry about the future of lawyers in uncertain economic times, predicting that the practice of law will be different as the result of changing economics. Although the bar cannot control the direction of the marketplace, he said it has a responsibility to ensure that the profession remains healthy and able to provide excellent legal services. “The question is whether our State Bar can help lead that economic evolution of the law practice or watch as our profession gets swallowed up by such changes,” he said.

Born and raised in Minnesota, Dunn said it was difficult to grow up in the home state of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale without a keen interest in politics. After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School, he worked for Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi, a Minneapolis-based firm that offered him a spot in its Newport Beach office in the mid-1980s. Already involved in politics, it was something of an eye opener for the Democrat to adjust to life in conservative Republican Orange County. But after years of handling mass tort work, almost exclusively for medical device and pharmaceutical plaintiffs, Dunn ran for the state Senate and won by a 5,000-vote margin. He credits his victory to a unique campaign strategy that featured delivery, the weekend before election day, of 25,000 chrysanthemums to every woman over 60 in the district.

Dunn says he’s most proud of his leadership of the Senate Investigation Committee’s three-year examination of Enron’s involvement in the 2000-01 energy crisis, when the legislature utilized its contempt power for the first time in 75 years. He also cites an almost 10-year effort to create a law school at the University of California, Irvine, which already enjoys an excellent reputation with just first- and second-year students enrolled.

After being termed out of the Senate in 2006, Dunn decided to run for attorney general, but withdrew when Jerry Brown announced his candidacy. He ran instead for state controller, losing to John Chiang. “John and I ran perhaps the only all-positive competitive campaign that year,” Dunn recalled. “It was an honor to lose to John and he’s been a great controller.”

He then spent three years as CEO of the California Medical Association, founded a law firm with former Sen. Martha Escutia — The Senators Firm (Ret.) — and launched Voice of OC, a nonprofit investigative news agency in Orange County.

Acknowledging the challenges of running a complex 230,000-plus member mandatory agency, Dunn said he looks forward to leading the bar. “This is a wonderful opportunity to bring my legal, political and CEO experience to the organization that is at the pinnacle of the profession I love — the law.”