Critics Rail Against CA Bar’s $5M Software Fix

     (CN) — The California State Bar has turned to software giant Tyler Technologies for a case-management overhaul, but critics say it will take a lot more than a $5.6 million software upgrade to repair its reputation with the Legislature and the public.
     “The state bar has completely lost their way. It is literally the most dysfunctional organization I’ve ever had to deal with as a lawyer,” attorney Mark Geragos said. “They’re the classic example of putting lipstick on a pig. Rather than deal with their problems they spend $5 million on a system they don’t need.”
     Geragos is currently representing ousted bar president Sen. Joseph Dunn, who in 2014 filed a whistleblower lawsuit claiming former chief trial counsel Jayne Kim had removed 269 backlogged attorney discipline cases from internal records to make her office appear more productive.
     “Even when they had the those UPL cases that were stuffed into a drawer, technology wouldn’t have solved that problem,” Geragos said, referring to a news report that the state bar failed to investigate over 300 complaints about UPL — the unauthorized practice of law — listed as sitting unassigned in a drawer since April 2015.
     Leah Wilson, who was hired for the newly created position of chief operations officer last year, said the new software will help mitigate some of the agency’s transparency and discipline issues, but acknowledged that an outdated computer system isn’t entirely to blame.
     “While the old system was not, itself, responsible for the backlog, it tied up resources in case management that could have been devoted to the investigation and prosecution of cases,” she said. “The Odyssey system will improve the state bar’s system for disciplining unethical attorneys, which is a core part of the agency’s public protection mission.”
     The move toward a more modern software system comes at a time of mounting controversy for the state bar, a bureaucracy with the California judiciary responsible for administering the California Bar exam and disciplining delinquent attorneys while also functioning as a trade association for its members.
     In the past year, the state bar has seen two blistering audits and withering criticism by lawmakers, who through a bill making its ability to collect membership dues next year contingent on sweeping reforms to its leadership structure.
     A majority report released in early August by the Task Force on Governance in the Public Interest extolled the new Tyler software as one of the “many recent accomplishments to which the state bar can point.”
     But it also acknowledged the strained relationship between the semi-public agency and the Legislature, saying, “In fact, the state bar has developed a reputation for being unresponsive and resistant to needed reform when issues are pointed out by the Legislature.”
     Assemblyman David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco, recently likened the state bar to the Titanic, saying, “If we don’t turn it around, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.”
     In an interview, he said, “While new software can’t hurt, the deeper governance, transparency and culture issue of the state bar will require more significant reform measures and we look forward to having that conversation.”
     The state bar’s more spectacular failures have been chronicled in two separate audits in 2015 and 2016, where State Auditor Elaine Howle blasted the agency for errors in its financial reports to the Legislature, an excessive backlog of attorney discipline cases, and collecting more membership dues than required to meet its operational costs.
     An audit from 2015 titled “It Has Not Consistently Protected the Public Through Its Attorney Discipline Process and Lacks Accountability” noted that although the state bar decreased its backlog from a 2010 high of 5,174 cases to 1,742 in 2011, the agency had also allowed some attorneys who should have been disbarred to continue practicing law.
     Howle added, “Further, at a time when we would have expected the state bar to focus its efforts and resources on its mission of public protection by taking steps such as improving its discipline system, it instead purchased a $76.6 million building in Los Angeles in 2012.”
     Howle said that money should have been used to replace its aging IT system.
     Efforts to do just that have been ongoing since 2003, when the agency began looking into developing a case management system for the Office of the Trial Council. It didn’t find a vendor until 2012 when it entered a contract with Sustain for a custom-build system. According to a business case for the Tyler system issued by the state bar, the Sustain project began to fail almost immediately, citing leadership problems.
     Right around the time Wilson took the COO position in 2015, Sustain delivered the finished product. “That product, however, was rejected by the state bar as unworkable, with key OCTC personnel indicating that even basic case processing functions could not be performed using the product as delivered,” the business case says. “Further exacerbating the challenging situation encountered by the bar’s new leadership team was the fact that Sustain alleged that the state bar was unreasonably modifying and increasing its requirements, creating a situation where neither party was satisfied and no viable CMS was in sight.”
     As a result, the state bar terminated its Sustain contract and began the search all over again. It considered going with the Court Case Management System, a custom-build for the California judiciary led by Deloitte Consulting.
     But that project was a failure as well, and was scrapped by the Judicial Council amid harsh criticism over its cost and functionality from judges, the Legislature and the state auditor.
     “The Judicial Council wasted a half a billion dollars on that system,” Geragos said.
     In the end, two companies put up bids for the state bar project: Trinity Technology group and Tyler Technologies, a Texas-based vendor that has grown to be a dominant player in case management software. In the race to fill the void left by CCMS, Tyler has been the clear winner: nearly half of California’s 58 superior courts have signed contracts with Tyler estimated to be worth $80 million over the next five years.
     Though procuring Tyler’s Odyssey product will cost roughly $541,000 more than Trinity’s, the state bar touted Tyler as “the best value selection,” saying Trinity doesn’t offer an off-the-shelf software product and would need to design a system from the ground up.
     In a reference to CCMS, Wilson said, “Recent experience in the California judiciary has shown that a commercial off-the-shelf system has the greatest likelihood of success and minimizes the risk inherent in a large technology project. We chose a technology that offers the best value to achieve the bar’s public protection mission in the most efficient and effective way.”
     She added, “The old system forced employees to work through cumbersome and inefficient 1980s computer screens to accomplish even the most simple tasks such as updating a case. In addition to freeing up resources for the Chief Trial Counsel’s Office and State Bar Court, the new system will contribute to the bar’s public protection mission by allowing the state bar to track cases more accurately, adjudicate cases more efficiently, exchange information online and manage documents electronically.”
     Implementing the Odyssey will cost about $2.7 million, according to the state bar’s business case, and personnel costs will be about $2.9 million. Annual licensing fees will be about $181,000, and will be absorbed by the agency’s operating budget.
     The project is expected to take 13 months to complete.
     “The state bar and Tyler will establish a governance structure and mechanism to ensure the project is on schedule and on budget. Choosing a vendor with a proven track record minimizes the risks inherent in a large technology project,” Wilson said.
     Assemblyman Chiu said the software “sounds like a step in the right direction after decades of neglect,” but — taking a cautious tone — he added, “As the state bar itself acknowledges, it is but one of many steps much needed to reform a long-broken discipline system.”
     Robert Baker, who represents two former state bar employees in separate whistleblower-retaliation lawsuits, said the new software seems like an excuse to spend membership dues without taking substantial steps toward reform.
     “This is a smokescreen,” he said. “It’s an outrage how they spend lawyer money. I have no faith in the state bar.”

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