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California Bar Dues Set at $0 While Chief Prosecutor Seat Empty

July 13, 2021, 7:46 PM

The California Bar would be required to have a state Senate-confirmed chief trial counsel before it could charge attorneys annual fees under the licensing bill approved Tuesday.

The 260,000-member bar has been without a permanent chief trial counsel for five years. The position is the top prosecutor in the bar’s discipline system. Author Sen. Tom Umberg, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said he remains hopeful the bill (S.B. 211) will be amended with a specific fee amount once a chief trial counsel is confirmed. This year’s base dues are $395 for active members and $97.40 for inactive lawyers.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee approved the bill 11-0 and forwarded it to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The Senate in May approved the bill on a 37-0 vote as as lawmakers expressed frustration with the bar’s discipline system.

The legislature shares oversight of lawyers with the California Supreme Court, with lawmakers exerting control through the annual fee bill that funds bar operations.

Sean SeLegue, bar board of trustees chairman, said the chief trial counsel job likely won’t be filled before the end of the legislative session in September. “Denying or delaying funding for the entire organization will only make it harder to recruit for this position,” SeLegue told the committee.

The bar failed to share with lawmakers results of an internal audit prompted by Los Angeles Times reporting about famed lawyer Tom Girardi, who is accused of stealing millions of dollars from clients over decades. The bar never acted against Girardi after years of complaints until last March.

Girardi, whose firm is in involuntary bankruptcy and receivership, now is on inactive status. A court found Girardi lacked capacity to manage his financial affairs and health care decisions.

The bill would direct the state auditor’s office to conduct and complete an audit into the bar’s discipline system. The audit would consider having an independent discipline monitor more closely review the discipline process and an independent ombudsperson to assist the public, an Assembly committee analysis said.

A state audit this spring found an 87% increase in the backlog of discipline cases between 2015 and 2020.

Among the reforms the bar is considering is looking at hiring accounting experts “to drill into money” in client trust account investigations, but “we can’t make those reforms without stable funding,” SeLegue said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com