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From the President

Raising the bar

By Craig Holden
President, the State Bar of California

Craig HoldenAs former American Bar Association President Dennis Archer once noted: Sometimes you don’t always get to choose your agenda, sometimes your agenda chooses you. This has certainly been the case for the Board of Trustees since our board term started in September 2014.

While I am grateful the board has supported, promoted and helped me implement the agenda and initiatives I set forth at the beginning of my term – which I’ll discuss in more detail in a later column – I’m most proud of the board’s leadership in improving and reforming the way we conduct our business.  As a public agency within the judicial branch of government, we are committed to conducting our business effectively and openly so that we are accountable to the public, our stakeholders and licensees.

As I embark on the second half of my year-long presidency, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about a few initiatives the board is undertaking to improve the organization. We are actively engaged in a national search for a new executive director and general counsel, have redesigned some of the functions of these and other positions and increased board oversight.  Further, we have tasked our acting chief financial officer to conduct a review of fiscal and budgeting policies as well as board and management expenses. This fiscal review has led to our implementation of new measures that increase fiscal accountability and controls.

I have also reconstituted the Governance in the Public Interest Task Force that will focus upon reinforcing our mission of public protection and implementing additional reforms. Some of these measures I have or will ask the task force to consider are:

  • Reviewing our board oversight functions to ensure greater accountability and better adherence to our broadly-defined mission of public protection
  • Studying and/or proposing reforms across the organization
  • Making our board and organizational rules available to the public and making them more user-friendly in order to increase transparency
  • Exploring the creation of a compliance unit or committee that will ensure the organization’s adherence to our myriad of governing rules
  • Studying and implementing additional transparency measures
  • Institutionalizing our culture of public protection and accountability, including in our strategic plan and throughout the organization
  • Evaluating our governance structure as a board and potentially making changes

It’s important to note that the State Bar generally has well developed fiscal and other controls appropriate for a public corporation, and is staffed by consummate professionals. We have an acting executive director in Bob Hawley who has more than 25 years of experience running the organization. But nothing should be taken for granted.

The board has requested a deeper level of information from the State Bar’s Finance Office about the budget and expenditures that largely involve annual licensing fees. This includes ensuring that if there are significant variances between the projected annual budget and actual expenditures, we will be able to inquire about the reasons and make budgetary adjustments as appropriate. This process has always existed. It is just that the board wishes to be more “hands on” in this process than it has historically, and to do so with public reports available to all. A good thing, we believe, for transparency.

We have also enhanced  transparency for expenditures to reimburse senior executives and board members for their business and travel expenses in conducting State Bar business. Beginning last month, the board’s audit committee began quarterly reviews of these expenses, with the reports being made public as part of the meeting process.

The expenses of the president are no exception.  At my direction, we changed the policy to ensure that the president’s expenses are not funded by mandatory dues or donations, and imposed further limits on the types of reimbursements allowed.

We are also soliciting feedback on a new set of rules designed to provide public access to State Bar administrative records. Comments are due by June 16.

Last but not least, the board continues to be vigilant in its oversight of our core functions of admissions and discipline – and is active in promoting greater access to legal services for the poor and those with modest means, as well as the diversification of the legal profession. We are also helping young lawyers with mentoring and training.

We hope that these efforts will bolster public confidence that the State Bar – as the regulatory body for more than a quarter million attorneys – is effectively administering its revenues and fulfilling its broadly-defined mission of public protection.