Committee Approves Overhaul of California State Bar

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A bill to allow the California State Bar to collect membership dues next year sailed out of the Senate Judiciary committee Tuesday, but it also contains a caveat: the agency must divide its disciplinary and trade association functions.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson D-Santa Barbara, will enact a host of changes to how the state bar operates, including winnowing its current 19-member board of trustees to 13 and cutting six attorney members from that number. Board members will now be expected to serve four-year terms instead of three. Members of the bar’s executive board must also include one member appointed by the governor, state Supreme Court and the Legislature.

It will also rename the positions of president and vice president as chair and vice chair, to be appointed by the state Supreme Court rather than elected by the board.

“This has been a very carefully thought-out effort. There’s a lot going on in this bill. We want to make sure we get this right,” Jackson said Tuesday. “This has not been easy and this has not been fun, but it’s my hope we will pass this and that the bar will once again do what it should be doing to protect the public and serve lawyers and the people of California.”

Jackson’s bill will authorize the bar to collect dues of $390 for 2018 and 2019, but disallows the bar from blocking the Legislature’s reduction of membership dues in the future.

Chief among the bill’s changes to the bar is its requirement that the agency allow its 16 specialty law groups to split off and form their own nonprofit corporation, to be called the California Bar Sections Association.

The “sections,” as the state bar calls them, are specialty organizations currently affiliated with the bar that focus 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.

They 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 bar to practice law in California, section membership is voluntary and members pay separate dues of roughly $95 a year.

The sections began considering a split from the bar last year, spurred by a combination of factors including new restrictions imposed by bar executives to reconcile the bar’s regulatory and trade association functions.

Among these was a ban on spending on alcohol at events and contracting with resort-style meeting venues. The sections had argued that these regulations prevented them from attracting and keeping members.

Jackson’s bill is the culmination of talks within the state bar and with the state Supreme Court and lawmakers, who were concerned about how the agency spends its money and whether it has been sufficiently diligent in disciplining wayward attorneys.

After the Legislature ended its session last fall without passing a yearly dues bill, the state Supreme Court stepped in and allowed the bar to collect dues for 2017 – but only to support its disciplinary functions.

At Tuesday’s hearing, State Bar President James Fox called the bill a perfect solution.

“We are strongly in support of this bill. You all know how contentious it was last year. This, I think, is a perfect solution,” he said.

“So you’re agreeing to the terms of your surrender,” joked state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Orange County.

“My white flag,” Fox laughed.

The committee passed the bill unanimously, 6-0.

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