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From the President

Many challenges remain

By Bill Hebert
President, State Bar of California

Bill HebertMy term as State Bar president is coming to a close and I want to take a few paragraphs to talk about the State Bar’s accomplishments this year and some of the challenges the Bar, the courts and our citizens face in near and distant future.

Hiring of the New Executive Director, Senator Joe Dunn. One of the first things we did during my term was to sign a contract with Joe Dunn to take the reigns as Executive Director. Joe, with the support of former Executive Director Judy Johnson and the rest of the executive staff at the Bar, hit the ground running. The State Bar will change and improve under Joe’s direction.

Transition to a New General Counsel, Starr Babcock. Shortly before my term commenced, the Bar hired Starr Babcock as its general counsel. Starr has turned out to be an excellent choice. He is smart, dedicated and hard-working. Under Starr’s leadership, the Office of the General Counsel consistently delivers excellent counsel and legal advice to our Board of Governors. We are lucky to have him.

Increase in Funding for Legal Services to the Poor. As I have written previously, there continues to exist in our state a huge gap between the need for basic legal services to the poor and the resources available to them. As President, I have supported our efforts to increase funding for legal services. I supported the amendments to the State Bar 2011 dues bill that permitted lawyers, through a “check-off,” to donate $10 to the Justice Gap Fund. Through that voluntary mechanism, we raised more than $1.6 million in additional legal services funding. I also worked throughout the year with staff at the Bar, including Mary Flynn, Stephanie Choy and others, to try to increase voluntary contributions by lawyers to the Justice Gap Fund. We were able to increase giving by almost 10 percent, or about $80,000, over the prior year. But this is still not enough. All lawyers need to give to the Justice Gap Fund if we are to continue to provide legal services to the poor in our state.

Right now, plans are being made for legendary trial attorney Jim Brosnahan to hold hearings throughout the state to publicize the plight of the judiciary and its impact on the poor of our state. The State Bar can provide key assistance to Jim and the members of the legal services community who will be crucial to this effort.

Confidentiality and Security in the JNE Process. About the time I started my term, we made significant changes in the confidentiality and security procedures in the processes used by the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE). These included new protocols regarding the receipt and return of confidential information of judicial applicants and the purchase of new software that protects the personally identifiable and confidential information of a judicial applicant in the event that a JNE Commission member’s laptop or computer is lost or stolen. The JNE process must remain confidential and the information generated about its judicial applicants, and those of us who rate the applicants, secure.

Governance in the Public Interest Task Force. At the legislature’s direction, the State Bar undertook to review its current governance structure and suggest changes to that structure that are designed to improve public protection. All the members of the task force and the Board of Governors struggled with these difficult and delicate issues. As a consequence, changes to the governance of the Bar and to other sections of the State Bar Act, are pending in the legislature.

Outreach to Voluntary Bar Associations and the Sections. We conducted extensive outreach to the voluntary bar associations around the state and our State Bar sections. While I was not able to visit every bar association, I got acquainted with a good number of the lawyers who are leaders in the state. The voluntary bars and the sections are in good hands. Lawyers throughout the state are deeply committed to raising the standards of the profession and promoting access to justice for the poor and underserved populations of our state. I hope many of the men and women who are volunteering their time at a local level consider seeking a position on a statewide level, either with the Board of Governors or with one of our many terrific sections. You could also seek appointment to JNE, the Legal Trust Fund Services Commission, the Access and Fairness Commission or one of many other committees and commissions that serve the entire state.

Promoting Diversity. Working with Pat Lee and the Access and Fairness Commission, I have tried to continue to promote diversity in the legal profession and on the bench. I have personally supported the work of Ruthe Ashley and the California Law Academies, which are being created in conjunction with the State Department of Education under its California Academy Partnership Model, as well as the Irvine Foundation and its Law and Justice Pathway Programs. Both of these programs seek to enhance diversity in the field of law by filling the “pipeline” with students of varied race, gender and socio-economic status. On September 7, the State Bar will co-host with the Administrative Office of the Courts an all-day conference on increasing diversity.

While we have made some progress this year, there are still many challenges ahead for the legal profession and the judiciary. To make legal services and the courts available to all, we need to consider some fundamental changes in how we practice law. The cost of legal services is prohibitive and our courts are closing down. We need to consider the following:

  • Permit more court appearances by videoconference. We have already made great strides by permitting telephone appearances at many hearings and permitting fax filings. We can do more to lower the cost of legal services. I am a member of the Bar of two jurisdictions in Marianas Islands, where the courts frequently use videoconferencing as a way to allow witnesses to appear and to be examined and cross-examined at trial. This saves everyone time and money.
  • Give greater latitude to those lawyers and law firms who wish to provide “unbundled” services, such as family law services, unsecured debt resolution services, etc. Some clients will just need advice, not outright representation in court, by a lawyer who can get them pointed in the right direction and keep them on track. This will save clients time and money.
  • Implement a statewide computerized case management system, so that we can reduce the costs of filing and retrieving documents. There is no reason for lawyers and pro per litigants to file documents by hard copy or by facsimile when it could all be done online, including effecting service on all of the opposing parties with a push of a button.
  • Secure sufficient funding for the operation of the judicial branch, through legislation or otherwise, out of the state’s general fund. As a separate and co-equal branch of government, the judicial branch requires sufficient funding year after year to provide the minimal level of services to members of the public who are seeking access to the courts. Funding has fallen below that minimal level and it needs to be increased dramatically to keep up with the needs of our state. The lack of funding for the courts isn’t an issue that is particular to lawyers and judges; lack of court funding hurts every citizen in the state and has ripple effects throughout the country as non-Californians seek justice in our courts.
  • Enhance the potpourri of legal services to the poor that already exists, including self-help desks, hotlines, legal services clinics, lawyer referral services and the like. As lawyers, we need to be personally funding these services through contributions to legal aid organizations or advocating for their funding with our state and local government officials.
  • Allow paralegals to perform some of what we now consider to be “legal “services, just as nurse practitioners perform some services that were once thought to be solely the province of doctors. We would then bring these legal assistants under the disciplinary arm of the State Bar.
  • Increase the number and types of services that the courts offer to litigants in cases where the monetary value is relatively low, such as our current experiments with short cause matters and other ways to enhance the speed with which our courts can deliver services.

The challenges to the legal profession and judiciary are great, and the challenges to finding ways to provide legal services to everyone who needs them are just as great. As I finish out my term as State Bar president, I am confident that a few dedicated people, working toward a common goal, can create tremendous change. I hope you will be one of the few.