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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

State Bar accepts auditor’s findings

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

A report by the California State Auditor last month made recommendations for improving the State Bar’s attorney discipline system as well as the bar’s reporting on discipline and financial matters.

The State Bar agreed with all the suggestions in the independent assessment, which is mandated by state law every other year, and is in the process of addressing each one, bar officials said.

“We embrace the recommendations, many of which we began addressing late last year before the audit began,” State Bar President Craig Holden said. “We appreciate the assistance of an independent expert in this effort.”

Holden called a special meeting of the Board of Trustees to review the results and assign the work to three different board committees.

The audit found that a 2011 push to eliminate a backlog of discipline complaints was “unrealistic” and may have resulted in a temporary period of greater leniency for disciplined attorneys.

Chief Trial Counsel Jayne Kim agreed with the audit findings and said when she arrived in the job at the end of 2011, she began changing the department’s policies and procedures to improve the quality of cases processed by the office and ensure that discipline outcomes were consistent, rather than just focusing on backlog numbers. Since then, the backlog numbers have increased a bit.

Kim explained that numbers do not always tell the whole story. One complicated disciplinary case can artificially inflate the backlog, which is defined as any complaint that has not been resolved within six months, regardless of how complex the matter.

For example, the mortgage foreclosure crisis put one Garden Grove lawyer in the disciplinary system with more than 800 complaints against him. In those situations, Kim said, her office focuses its resources on prosecuting enough cases to result in disbarment. New complaints that follow are counted in the backlog as “suspended inventory” until the disbarment is complete.

Kim also agreed with the auditor’s suggestions to improve the discipline system, including performing workforce planning to ensure that staffing is aligned with the organization’s mission. Acting Executive Director Robert Hawley said it’s time to revisit the allocation of staffing and other resources across the agency. The current structure has been in place since about 2000, when the State Bar was rebuilt after being defunded during the Governor Wilson administration.

After a close and independent analysis of the State Bar’s backlog and metrics data, the auditors verified the integrity of the data in the database. However, they took issue with what the State Bar counts as backlog in its Annual Discipline Report, which has been produced by the Executive Director’s Office since 2011.

Hawley said he is more than open to discussions on further improvements to the report. However, he noted that the process needs to be collaborative since various stakeholders have expressed different ideas about what statistics should be included.

The audit also found that the Board of Trustees and the Legislature were not fully informed about the financing for the 2012 acquisition of the bar’s new Los Angeles office, which was overseen by the former executive director.

“(K)ey decision makers and stakeholders lacked the information necessary to make informed financial decisions related to the purchase of the Los Angeles building or to understand its impact on the State Bar’s other financial priorities,” the audit said.

The $76.6 million building was funded by a special assessment approved by the Legislature, the sale of a bar-owned parking lot in Los Angeles and money borrowed from banks and from other State Bar funds.

“The L.A. building is a great acquisition for the agency, its employees and State Bar members,” Hawley said. “What we have learned from the audit about keeping decision makers and stakeholders fully informed as the deal progressed, is another issue. That is being addressed.”

“The State Bar is in a period of transition,” Hawley observed. “New executive director, new general counsel. Opportunities abound.” The board is scheduling interviews this month to hire a new executive director and plans to have a new leader on board by the Annual Meeting in October.