From the President

What is the State Bar and what does it do?

By Patrick Kelly
President, State Bar of California

Patrick KellyAs I’ve traveled the state, I’ve been struck by the fact that some attorneys seem to have the incorrect impression that the State Bar is a professional “association” designed to serve the needs of its attorney members. This is often expressed through the question “What am I getting for my annual dues?” In fact, the State Bar is a judicial branch regulatory agency that oversees admissions, licensing, discipline and Minimum Continuing Legal Education of the more than 240,000 California attorneys. We are accountable to the Supreme Court and represent the people of the State of California.  Perhaps the better question is “Are we adequately protecting the people of California?”

More specifically, the California Constitution makes the State Bar a constitutional agency within the judicial branch of state government. The State Bar is accountable to the Supreme Court for regulating the legal profession in California. It is true that, as I will detail below, there is a small "professional association" component to the State Bar. However, by legislative enactment its primary mission is public protection. In re Attorney Discipline System, 19 Cal.4th 582, 590, 598-99 (1998); Bus. & Prof. Code § 6001.1.  Interestingly, the word “association” isn’t in our name. We are simply “The State Bar of California.”

To understand what the State Bar is and what it is not, it helps to know that, along with about half of the states California has a "unified bar." That means that the governmental licensing and regulatory functions are "unified" with the small statewide professional association functions. The Legislature created the State Bar of California as a unified bar in 1927, dissolving the California State Bar Association the same year. Since then, the State Bar of California has been a governmental agency whose core function is to admit, regulate, discipline and license lawyers. All California attorneys are compelled to be “members” of the State Bar. There are also some professional association characteristics that are noted below.

So in answer to the question of "What do we get for our dues?" the first benefit is that in California we are one of very few states where lawyers are allowed to regulate themselves. That is a significant benefit – but also a responsibility to make sure we do it bearing in mind our primary responsibility of public protection. Second, the State Bar is a leader in seeking access to justice for the many who are underserved in our community. That helps the public but also helps lawyers in practicing our profession by providing that help. Finally, as I noted above, there is an associational aspect to the State Bar whereby the bar strives to give attorneys the tools needed to serve clients better. For example, lawyers can maintain an ethical law practice through information on our website and a toll-free hotline for ethics questions (800-238-4427). The bar offers numerous educational programs and lawyers can sign up for section memberships in their practice area. The sections which are self funded truly do function as a "professional association." The State Bar also provides sponsored malpractice insurance programs and other tools to serve client needs better such as communications to lawyers to keep them abreast of issues and developments of importance to attorneys and their clients – such as the California Bar Journal in which you are reading this article.

Thus, under our Constitution, the State Bar’s duty is to the public. The fees paid annually to the State Bar are licensing fees, not membership fees. However in performing its public protection mission, the State Bar is constantly looking for ways to improve access to justice and to help attorneys to improve the quality of service and professionalism that is provided by us, its attorney members.