The California Bar could charge lawyers $390 for their annual license under legislation that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, with the bill specifically requiring the bar to comply with data breach notification requirements and mandating yet another state audit.
The legislature-mandated State Auditor’s report, prompted by revelations that famed trial attorney Tom Girardi stole millions of dollars from clients for years, found faulty policies are limiting the State Bar’s ability to protect the public from attorney misconduct.
The bill (AB 2958) is meant to address controversy over the bar’s disciplinary and other actions, because “even when we need to expand access to justice wherever we can, we can also rely on the bar to be the disciplinary organization. And with some of the high-profile cases that have come up this year, that disciplinary obligation certainly needs to be strengthened,” bill author Assembly Judiciary Chairman Mark Stone (D) told the committee.
The bar contends it needs significant additional funding to implement the audit’s recommendations. Instead, the bill, which unanimously passed the Assembly in May, requires the State Auditor to evaluate each bar program or division receiving support from the annual licensing and other fees. The results of the audit, due April 2023, will help lawmakers assess the bar’s request, a committee analysis said.
The legislation authorizes an annual $390 fee for active licensees for 2022, and $97.40 for inactive licensees. The active licensee fee would drop by $4 and $1 for inactive licensees if the bar has entered into a contract to sell its San Francisco office building by Dec. 31, 2022. It now heads to the Senate floor and must return to the Assembly for concurrence.
The bill also makes the agency subject to state Information Practices Act data breach reporting requirements. The bar in February publicly disclosed that a breach of its confidential attorney discipline case data led to thousands of records being posted on a public website that aggregates court records nationwide. The bar is more like regulatory agencies under the Department of Consumer Affairs, which are subject to requirements, than it is to the courts, the analysis said.
The committee spent most of its time discussing the bill’s provision that any bar committee or subcommittee exploring a regulatory sandbox to develop innovative legal service models or licensing of non-attorneys as paraprofessionals must get clearance from lawmakers. The goal, said Stone, is to ensure accountability. The provision “sends a pretty strong message that any efforts being done there is the responsibility of the legislature so, yes, they have to bring proposals here.”
But bar Board of Trustees President Ruben Duran said the paraprofessionals can assist in making legal services more accessible and affordable while protecting the public. “We believe that it’s time for California to join the other 14 states who are exploring these types of regulatory reforms,” Duran said. “Not because we want to diminish the profession or because we are not paying attention to the discipline system, but because we are passionate about meaningful access.”
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