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From the President

Improving the operation of the State Bar

By David Pasternak
President, the State Bar of California

David PasternakAs I write this penultimate president's column, a confluence of related events – discussions about this year’s annual State Bar fee bill, implementation of numerous reforms mandated in last year’s Fee Bill, and a report by the Governance in the Public Interest Task Force – all of which concern the structure and operation of the State Bar, are nearing conclusion. This important work, which has the Assembly, the Senate, the Supreme Court and the State Bar board and staff working intensely, has one common goal – to improve the operation of the State Bar so that it is more effective in achieving its mission of public protection.

The statutory governance task force held its final meeting on July 22, 2016, after meeting seven times starting in December 2015 and heard input from some 30 individuals, including Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, Professor Robert Fellmeth of the Center for Public Interest Law, Court of Appeal Justices Ronald Robie and Laurie Zelon. At its final meeting, the seven trustee members of the task force agreed on the content of its final report, with all members agreeing that various governance changes should be considered and implemented.

The task force report, which is being released at the beginning of August, identified nine underlying problems:

  • The perception of an ineffectively managed discipline system
  • Inadequate definitions of mission and public protection
  • Proliferation of activities creating ‘mission creep’
  • A conflicting hybrid governance structure
  • Confusing reporting relationships that hinder accountability
  • Proliferation of committees, boards and commissions
  • Many distinct and restricted funding sources
  • Inadequate development and support for human resources
  • Inadequate funding

The task force unanimously supported a line of succession for State Bar board leadership, enhanced orientation and training for trustees, and better defining of the State Bar's mission of public protection. There were various levels of support for increasing the number of public members on the board (while maintaining a majority of attorneys on the board), eliminating elections for board members, having the Attorney General appoint an enforcement monitor with legal expertise and familiarity with the State Bar's disciplinary functions, further reviewing the reporting framework for the Chief Trial Counsel, reducing the board's size (while ensuring diversity), addressing the impacts of silo funding and considering whether State Bar funding should increase.

Of course, the task force report also considers the State Bar’s current structure as a unified bar, with a majority of task force members unconvinced that de-unification is a wise choice at this time, In fact, the State Bar is now working hard to implement significant changes required by a series of reports released earlier this year and mandated by last year's fee bill. Many agreed that finishing that work is a necessary first step before additional structural changes are considered.

Meanwhile, discussions are continuing between the two legislative houses, together with the Supreme Court, about the contents of this year's fee bill. All of the State Bar's many stakeholders, including California's lawyers and the legal services community, should be interested in these related events. It is quite clear that tomorrow's State Bar will not be the same as last generation’s State Bar. But I have little doubt that as the result of these joint efforts involving the Legislature, the Supreme Court, the Board of Trustees and our invaluable State Bar staff, tomorrow's State Bar will be even more effective in achieving its mission of public protection.