California lawyers’ licensing fees are going up sharply for the first time in two decades under the latest measure aimed at reforming the state attorney licensing agency.
The 2020 base licensing fees for active California attorneys will increase triple digits, from $123 to $438 under Senate Bill 176 that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law Oct. 9. A license in California will cost $544 after adding a variety of fees, an Assembly Judiciary Committee analysis said.
It’s the first time in 20 years that fees were increased for the state’s more than 266,000 attorneys, including 190,000 lawyers who are actively practicing.
The annual bar oversight law also shows that the Legislature, which regulates lawyers under the under the State Bar Act, intends to further force the bar to act like every other state agency.
The new law requires the bar be included as part of the annual budget process for the state beginning with the 2021–22 fiscal year.
Newsom in a signing statement said the administration needs to closely work with the agency to understand the implications of including the bar in the state budget process. The governor directed the Department of Finance to begin discussing with the bar “but I am not committing to including the State Bar in the annual budget process.”
The bar has been criticized as elitist and forgetful of its mission to protect the public, issues that lawmakers and consumer advocates repeatedly raised over the past two decades. The California Bar also was faulted for an insular system in which lawyers oversee other lawyers.
“Regrettably, the universal delegation to attorneys of the power to regulate themselves has led to a lose/lose system lacking protection from incompetent practice while also diminishing needed supply,” said Robert Fellmeth, a University of San Diego Center for Public Interest director who was state bar discipline monitor from 1987 to 1992.
The bar acts to restrain trade, including supply diminution through “outrageous bar flunking rates of 60% plus” after seven years of higher education, and needs to be controlled by a state entity not by active participants in the field, Fellmeth said.
Bar reforms are usually are part of the annual fee bill, Fellmeth said. That includes applying the state Open Meetings and Public Records Act to the bar.
Restructuring over the past decade through the fee bill included changing the name of the board from Board of Governors to the Board of Trustees and changing the monies paid to operate the bar from “dues” to “fees.” The 2017 annual bill also separated out the trade association functions of the bar “so it would be a legitimate regulatory agency,” Fellmeth said.
Protecting the State Bar Court, the nation’s only independent court that oversees professional discipline of attorneys, consistently is cited as paramount for public protection. The State Bar Court recommends lawyer discipline to the California Supreme Court, which determines who is admitted and disciplined.
The bar over the past four decades has become “a well-financed, highly bureaucratic organization, which is funded by annual dues paid by lawyers, ensuring that the agency has adequate funds to protect the public,” said Ellen Pansky, an ethics attorney with Pansky Markell in Pasadena, Calif., and a former state bar prosecutor.
“The State Bar Court is a strong, efficient and independent judicial entity, and in my opinion, must be safeguarded as an independent and separate institution,” Pansky said.