Share this on Twitter Share this on Facebook Share this on Linked In Share this by Email
From the President

The year ahead

By David J. Pasternak
President, the State Bar of California

David PasternakAs I take the reins as State Bar president, I am happy to report that the organization is unquestionably in good hands. Our new executive director, Elizabeth Parker, is a terrific leader who was the dean of McGeorge Law School for 10 years, among other notable jobs, and has a keen understanding of most of the significant issues now concerning the admission and regulation of lawyers.

Our new chief operating officer, Leah Wilson, has joined us after serving as the executive officer of the Alameda County Superior Court and has equal skills as an experienced manager while also understanding the relationship between lawyers and the courts.

Our new general counsel, Vanessa Holton, previously served as chief counsel and assistant chief counsel for the California Department of Industrial Relations and understands the responsibilities of an attorney supervising the legal staff of a California administrative agency, as well as advising the many employees and Board of Trustees of such an agency. They really are a leadership "dream team."

With our new staff leadership, the State Bar is well-equipped to address its public protection mission. As always, our admissions and discipline systems are our top priorities. With respect to admissions, we are continually working to improve what is already a highly functioning system. California has a unique system for qualifying law students to practice law. Unlike most other jurisdictions, applicants can qualify through four years of law study in correspondence, distance-education or fixed-facility unaccredited law schools.

In addition, applicants can qualify through graduation from an ABA- or California-accredited law school. This past year, the Board of Trustees approved in principle a proposal from the Committee of Bar Examiners, the entity with statutory oversight of such schools, that will require unaccredited law schools to become accredited and permit the accreditation of online law schools. During the next several months, the committee will further define the proposed regulations, which will be considered by the board and, if approved, by the Supreme Court and the Legislature.

Significant attention has been paid to our discipline system in recent months, primarily in response to concerns raised by the California State Auditor in a report issued earlier this year. Much of the report focused on efforts to reduce our discipline system backlog, which occurred a number of years ago; a more appropriate balance between expediency and quality has been struck by our current chief trial counsel, resulting in those particular findings being substantially addressed by the time the audit was issued. Additional state auditor concerns regarding inconsistent caseload and backlog reporting are accepted and understood and will be addressed in forthcoming annual discipline reports.

More proactively, we will be undertaking a workforce planning initiative in the coming months to ensure that the bar’s disciplinary functions are adequately supported and staffed. Important re-engineering efforts already occurring in the Office of the Chief Trial Counsel will be enhanced by the realignment of resources that is expected to result from the workforce planning analysis, thus increasing our ability to effectively protect the public through this most critical enforcement arm.

But there is more to public protection than admissions and discipline. Access to our legal system also is a key component of public protection. There are at least three major access issues for the State Bar.

First, we need to make sure that anyone who has the desire, the intellectual capacity and the good moral character to be a lawyer has the opportunity to do so. We need to make sure that the lawyers of the State of California reflect the diversity and multiculturalism of California so that the public can find lawyers that they trust to advise them and represent them.

Second, we need to make sure that Californians have access to courts to hear and resolve their legal disputes. That means adequately funded state and federal courts, with adequately compensated judges and judicial officers so that we attract and retain the best and brightest judges to our benches. It also means that we make sure that no judge is subjected to improper outside pressure or influence when making decisions that should be based solely on the law and facts presented to them – the independence of the judiciary.

Finally, access means the public's access to lawyers and legal services. Unfortunately, too many of us have priced ourselves beyond the financial ability of most California residents. The State Bar's recent Task Force on Civil Justice Strategies Task Force report identified various remedies for this problem, including incubator programs and navigators. Incubators are groups of young lawyers who receive training, mentorship and other support to provide low cost legal services for individuals of modest means who satisfy certain financial criteria. Navigators are non-lawyers who help self-represented litigants find their way through our courthouses. A navigator will tell the self-represented litigant where the courtroom is, where to file papers, how to address the judge and so on. The State Bar will continue its efforts to further these and similar programs to provide access to legal services for modest means clients.

Access also requires the provision of legal services for California's poor. In 1999, through the efforts of former Chief Justice Ronald M. George and others, California began providing funding for legal services for the poor with the establishment of the Equal Access Fund. The initial funding amount was $10 million. It has remained at nearly that amount for the last 16 years, without any significant increase even for inflation during that lengthy period of time.

Meanwhile, during those intervening years, IOLTA funding for legal services, which is collected by the State Bar from bank interest on attorney trust accounts, has shrunk precipitously as the result of the significant diminution in interest rates. More than 8 million Californians qualify for free legal services – over 20 percent of the state’s population. California’s Equal Access funding contribution for these residents equals a meager $1.25 per eligible resident. Viewed from another perspective, the state contributes 26 cents per California resident for legal services funding – no more than some loose change. California’s legal services funding per eligible resident ranks 21st among all states, slightly ahead of West Virginia.

This funding is of critical importance to the clients of legal services organizations. These services often provide essential assistance for low income Californians for the most basic necessities of life – shelter, food, family, medical treatment and government benefits.

There are California residents throughout our state who need, but cannot get, legal services because there are too few pro bono services available to them. They include homeless veterans in San Diego, South Central Los Angeles homeowners whose home ownership are threatened by con artists, Central Valley farmworkers who don’t receive wages to which they are entitled and Bay Area parents living with HIV who need assistance securing medical treatment.

California needs to increase its monetary support for legal services. Considering that our courts estimate that every dollar spent on self-help programs for self-represented litigants at our courthouses saves $4.35 for court operations and that many of California’s legal services providers leverage their dollars through lawyers' voluntary legal services and thereby provide as much as $10 worth of free legal services for every dollar in their budget, there is not a better investment that California can make.

During the next year, the State Bar will continue its efforts regarding these and many other issues. I welcome the thoughts and assistance of all California lawyers for these important public protection efforts.