Bar board task force moves
to address legislative criticism
A State Bar Board of Governors task force took steps last month to respond to legislative criticism that the bar may not be meeting its public protection mission. “The legislature perceived that the bar was putting the interests of lawyers ahead of the interests of the public,” said bar President Bill Hebert, chair of the Task Force on Governance in the Public Interest. He cited four examples in which lawmakers discern a bias in favor of attorneys at the expense of the public:
- A Find Legal Help feature on the website that didn’t allow for searching by practice
- A liability insurance disclosure requirement that opponents considered watered-down
- Opposition to a bill prohibiting attorneys from receiving upfront fees for loan modification services
- Failing to renew the contract of a tough-on-lawyers chief trial counsel
Even if task force members disagree with the legislature’s conclusions, Hebert told the panel, they must be aware of and respond to the concerns.
Included in the fee bill, AB2764, by Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Feuer and others, was a requirement to convene a governance task force and come up with a report by May 15 and every three years thereafter. The report should include, the fee bill states, task force “recommendations for, among other things, enhancing and ensuring the protection of the public.”
Feuer said he added the conditions to the fee bill because of a focus in the legal media and concern in the legislature “about whether the Board of Governors is as diligent as it needs to be in prioritizing the public interest and protecting members of the public with regard to lawyers.”
Referring to “Find Legal Help” and lack of support by some board members for legislation that would curtail lawyer misdeeds as two examples of questionable priorities, he said, “The point is, there have been a couple of instances which led me to think it was important that there be some meaningful analysis by the bar on the fullest extent to which it can go to protect the public.”
Feuer hasn’t taken a position on whether there should be more public members on the board, he said, “but I think it is something that should be considered. I’m looking forward to the bar’s recommendations regarding what the composition of the board should be.” It’s important for the bar, he added, “to take real leadership and have a key impact into the issues we’re discussing. If there are going to be any changes, they should be directly informed by input from the bar
The 11-member task force appointed by and including the board president is made up of three public (Jeannine English, Gwen Moore and Dennis Mangers) and eight attorney (Lowell Carruth, Angela Davis, Hebert, Loren Kieve, Wells Lyman, Luis Rodriguez, Jon Streeter and Michael Tenenbaum) members of the board of governors. There are also five ex-officio members.
A legislative analysis of the fee bill, enacted in September, notes that a letter from the Center for Public Interest Law recommends a number of changes to the bar’s governance structure, such as changing the appointment method and composition of the board of governors, giving the board authority to nominate the chief trial counsel, subjecting the board to the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act and reviewing or abolishing the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), which provides mental health and substance abuse services to lawyers.
“We should make sure we’re not wedded to the status quo, but at the same time, we shouldn’t make change just for change’s sake,” said Hebert. He added later, “We can either take steps as the bar’s board of governors to retain control of the State Bar as an arm of the Supreme Court or the legislature is going to make those decisions for us.”
The main chore of the task force, he said, would be “to take a hard look” at the composition of the board, including the ratio of public and lawyer members and how they get on the board.
Hebert appointed committees to write a description of the task force charge and study governance structures of other mandatory bar boards and of similar state licensing agencies.