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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Presidential candidates hope for a quiet year

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

A renewed focus on discipline, regrouping after turbulent times, diversity, technology and better relations with staff and each other are just a few of the issues being raised by the four candidates for 2011-2012 president of the State Bar.

Third-year members James Aguirre of Los Angeles, Angela Davis of Los Angeles, Jon Streeter of San Francisco and Michael Tenenbaum of Thousand Oaks are seeking to succeed Bill Hebert of San Francisco as president of the 232,000-member bar. The election of the 87th president will be held July 22.

Why do you want to be president?

“The bar needs real leadership,” said Tenenbaum, 42, who represents businesses in commercial litigation and arbitration. “I’ve been on the board for 2 1/2 years and I’ve seen a variety of leadership styles, from self-promotion and traveling around the country to political manipulation. The bar needs leadership in terms of its core mission ― get the bad apples out of the bunch and don’t harass lawyers who haven’t done anything wrong.”

“I believe that the bar is at a critical juncture in its long history and that we need to have a new era of collegiality on the board and stability in the leadership,” said Jon Streeter, 54, a partner at Keker & Van Nest. “We’ve had a turbulent last couple of years and I very much want to bring about a calming of the waters,” with a hard look at the discipline system.

“I think it will be a very challenging year in 2011 to 2012 and in all likelihood, the bar will be faced with some changes as well as challenges,” said Angela Davis, 49, assistant U.S. attorney in the major frauds section. “I believe that the breadth of my experience, which includes service in the public as well as the private sector and extensive community involvement both within and beyond the legal profession, would enable me to communicate with the various interested parties and serve effectively as the bar’s leader in what we know will be a challenging time.”

James Aguirre
James Aguirre

“I think there are some things unique to my experience and background that I can bring to the position for the presidency,” said Aguirre, 58, lead attorney for the law firm of Richardson & Fair and house counsel for the Automobile Club of Southern California. He cited 32 years as a lawyer, first in legal services, and his ethnic background. “There never has been a Latino or Latina president of the State Bar. It’s not lost on me that that would be a first,” he said, adding that his election would send a message, as it did when the first woman, first Asian and first African American were elected president, that “diversity is valued, inclusiveness is valued.”

Davis and Streeter did not bring up diversity as an issue, but when asked, they both said their backgrounds relating to diversity would enhance their abilities as president. Streeter’s mixed-race heritage (“the same as President Obama’s”) “shapes my outlook ― and my style of leadership ― in very important ways. Listening to all points of view, feeling comfortable with people of different backgrounds, being willing to adapt and change, is fundamental to who I am,” he said.

Angela Davis
Angela Davis

Davis’ background, which includes being president of California Women Lawyers, fluent Spanish speaker who has taught law courses in Mexico and Argentina and adviser on bias and diversity issues, also informs who she is, she said. As the mother of adopted Chinese daughters, Davis said she celebrates and honors her children's culture.

Tenenbaum quoted Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King in stating why ethnicity should not be a consideration in the election and then said, “We would all be better off if some people would stop obsessing over everyone’s immutable physical characteristics and instead evaluate people on their individual merits. I would actually be the youngest president in the history of the State Bar, but that is not one of the reasons why I should be elected; the fact that I will continue to push the bar to achieve efficiencies by adopting new technologies, for example, is one.”

Renewed focus on the core mission

All the candidates want to put behind them the troubles of the past few years, which have included embezzlement by a staffer, a veto of the fee bill, dissonance about carrying out a legislative order to produce a new governance structure and departure of the top executive, and get back to the professional goals of the bar.

The focus must be “our core mission of public protection, public service and the betterment of the profession,” said Davis. Streeter and Tenenbaum put at the top of their presidential priority list a desire to refocus on the bar’s mission of disciplining lawyers.

“It shouldn’t take four years to file a case,” said Tenenbaum, who is calling for reform of the discipline system. He said the bar spends $36 million to file 600 cases in a good year and he’d like to explore whether new priorities or focus in the chief trial counsel’s office would make a difference.

Jon Streeter
Jon Streeter

Streeter said a great deal of the next year should be spent “focusing on the efficiency and expense of the discipline process. That is an area that I think ― largely because of all the time we invested in the (governance) task force process this year ― we were unable to really roll up our sleeves and have a look at.”

The task force has submitted two reports to the legislature ― a majority report maintaining the current number of members at 23 with three appointed lawyer members, and a minority report trimming the board to 15 and having all lawyer members appointed by the Supreme Court. The separate reports and heated discussions during the task force meetings highlighted a divide between public and attorney members. Streeter apologized to the public members at a board meeting after it was reported that he said that some board members were “trying to blow the bar up.” When it “became clear to me after talking to some of the public members privately that they perceived a slight,” he apologized, he explained. “I wanted to make clear that I heard them, that I respect them and that I value their point of view even if we disagree. In any atmosphere of contentiousness and debate, I want to state any disagreements without being disagreeable. That’s an important value of mine . . .  My own view is that the honor and integrity of lawyers as a profession has come under fire and I certainly react very strongly to that kind of attack on an occupation I’ve spent many decades of my life engaged in.”

Michael Tenenbaum
Michael Tenenbaum

Tenenbaum says he doesn’t see a tension between the public and attorney members.

Davis, who with Streeter, drew up the proposal that ultimately became the majority report, said she “very much” wants no tension between the public and attorney members. “I’ve learned a great deal from public members and I think their presence has been critically important on many issues impacting consumer and non-attorney interests,” she said. “It’s critical for all of us to understand that the task force has now completed its work. It’s now up to the legislature, and, whether the legislature adopts the majority report, the minority report or something of its own creation, we are very likely going to be working in a changed environment.

“But the bar's core mission will be the same: public protection, public service and the betterment of the profession. It will be our job to work with one another ― and with all of our stakeholders ― to carry out that mission in a changed structure. There will of course be debates as we go along.”

Aguirre said the majority came up with a proposal “that is very workable. I don’t think an all-appointed board would necessarily be any more dedicated to protecting consumers.”

On other issues, Tenenbaum, a graduate of UCLA and Harvard Law School, said the board has allowed staff to set the agenda and also has not asked for reports and information that would help it make more informed decisions and policy. Tenenbaum has sought information that would not have otherwise been available and had his own interns create a form on which insurance companies could report fraud, he said. “That’s a level of management I don’t need to be involved in, but the board hasn’t been asking. It is in an entirely reactive mode. It’s easily distracted by staff and news of the day.”

Aguirre, a graduate of California State University of Los Angeles and UCLA School of Law, said he wants “to return to an era where less of the day-to-day operations are dictated or governed by what’s happening on the board of governors and where the day-to-day operations and priorities of the bar are handled by the professional staff.” The board, he said, needs to focus on “larger priorities of the profession and the system of justice,” including working with the judicial branch. The board has been operating, he added “in crisis mode.” He also is interested in promoting services that help the poor, such as unbundling and promotion of the so-called “Civil Gideon” statute, which created a pilot project providing free legal representation to the indigent in civil cases.

Streeter, a graduate of Stanford University and Boalt Hall School of Law at UC-Berkeley, said he has a strong interest in access to justice issues, as evidenced by creation of a Lend a Helping Hand to Veterans program created under his leadership as chair of the stakeholders committee and he wants to expand on that program. He also said he wants to see what the board can do to more effectively meet the goals of the strategic plan.

Davis, who graduated from Stanford and UCLA law school, said it would be a mistake to undertake anything “that would be a distraction from the critical task at hand, which will be unifying the entire board of governors and its stakeholders in serving the core mission.”