Calif. Bar Advances Spinoff of Specialty Law Groups

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In the wake of wide-ranging changes to how the California State Bar will be running its operations, its board of trustees on Monday gave the nod to 16 specialty law groups to start discussions with the the Legislature and supreme court on how to go about splitting from the bar.

The “sections” as the State Bar calls them, are specialty organizations currently affiliated with the bar, each focusing on on various areas of legal practice, from family and labor law to intellectual property and antitrust law. It also includes the California Association of Young Lawyers.

The sections provide low cost continuing education for its attorney members, which the state bar requires. They also work with legislators to interpret, amend and propose legislation. While lawyers are required to be dues-paying members of the State Bar to practice law in California, section membership is voluntary and members pay separate dues of roughly $95 a year, making the sections self-funded.

Earlier this year, the sections began exploring the idea of separating from the bar, spurred by a combination of factors including new regulations imposed by bar executives in an effort to reconcile the bar’s regulatory and trade association functions.

“Were they to depart, it would be a painful change for many. But I’m coming to conclude that it may the best for both the public protection mission and strengthening the profession,” State Bar Executive Director Elizabeth Parker said at the Bar’s board of trustees meeting Monday.

Discussions within the Council on Sections on how to make the split are still preliminary, but the groups are faced with either forming their own independent non-profit or becomming separate government body overseen by the Supreme Court and the Legislature.

At this point, Council on Sections officer Mark Ressa said, staying with the State Bar just isn’t a viable option, though the idea of a split didn’t come from the sections as a whole, but from one section on business law and two members of the State Bar’s board of trustees.

“There were continuing impositions in terms of how we would conduct business,” Ressa said in a phone interview. “It was made clear the State Bar will operate under one set of rules, and that means a whole range of issues.”

This year, the State Bar began implementing a series of across-the-board reforms to its operations and how it spends membership dues, including requiring compliance with California’s Bagley Keene open meetings law and banning spending on alcohol at events and contracting with resort style meeting venues.

The changes were spurred in part by criticism from lawmakers, and a scathing report from the California State Auditor over how the agency spends its money and whether it has been sufficiently diligent in disciplining wayward attorneys, one of its core public protection functions. An internal report by Governance in the Public Interest Task Force this year also recommended changes to the Bar’s governance system, and the State Bar responded by imposing uniform fiscal policies.

Parker said the resulting “much different operating environment” brought about by the newly adopted uniform set of rules didn’t sit too well with the sections.

Ressa said that while the sections have been able to adapt to some changes, others, such as the severe scaling back of the State Bar’s annual meeting have hampered its work, as the sections usually use that time to conduct meetings and hold affordable education sessions for lawyers.

The ban on alcohol and hotel restrictions has also caused some tension.
“That has been of some concern to some sections who reach out to provide seminars and meetings that include not only attorneys but people in their practice area,” Ressa said. “With these types of limitations, it might reduce the effectiveness of what these sections do.”

Ressa said the sections have been mostly able to adapt to the Bagley-Keene Act, which requires all California boards and commissions to conduct open meetings, publicize agendas, post minutes and provide advance meeting notice. Ressa said this can be tricky, however, when issues arise at the last minute.

“In my opinion, the sections have been able to work wth Bagley Keene. It makes things more difficult, which is too bad, but the Office of General Counsel have determined the that the sections, as part of State Bar, cannot be exempt from the open meeting rules,” Ressa said. “It makes everything we do a little more cumbersome.”

Though the sections haven’t voted yet on how to proceed with a split, its 19 employees are already worried about what might happen to their jobs. “If the sections split off they will be facing layoffs from the State Bar,” Theresa Mesa, a program developer with the State Bar’s Office of Legal Services said in an interview. “You get attached to this group, you take pride in your work, and then you feel like you’ve been kicked to the curb.”

She said she and other members of the Service Employees International Union had spoken with several members of the California Assembly, who were stunned to find out that the sections actually contribute $1.5 million annually to the State Bar’s costs. “They thought they were costing the Bar money,” Mesa said.

During the meeting’s public comment period, Mesa told the trustees that Assembly members were not pushing for de-unification.
“It’s not a question of sections costing money, or that the assembly wants deunification. On the whole, when they have the information they are not pushing for it,” Mesa said.

Danette Meyers, a board member appointed to facilitate talks with between the sections and the Legislature, was surprised by the revelation that lawmakers were not pushing for separation between the Bar and its sections. “I was a little shocked because I thought that was something that was a foregone conclusion,” Meyers said. She asked Parker if the atmosphere in the legislature had changed.

De-unification was one of the primary disagreements between between the heads of each the Assembly and Senate judiciary committees this year, resulting in the Legislature adjourning in September without agreeing on a bill allowing the bar to collect fees from California’s roughly 250,000 lawyers. Assembly members seemed to favor splitting the Bar’s trade association and disciplinary functions. The Senate Judiciary committee, along with California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, opposed the idea.

Parker said, “It’s hard to comment authoritatively on what every member of they legislature thinks, but I will say there’s a difference of view between the Assembly and Senate judiciary committees. That is something that will have to be worked through.”