California Bar wants to get ‘proactive’ in attorney discipline cases

The California flag flies above City Hall in Santa Monica, California February 6, 2009. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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  • Officials plan to do more than just respond to complaints
  • Reforms part of a wider effort to improve under-fire discipline process

(Reuters) – Leaders of the State Bar of California said Monday that they have implemented changes to the Office of Chief Trial Counsel, which investigates and prosecutes attorneys disciplinary matters, with more reforms on the way.

Those efforts include increasing staff, including the addition of a full-time administrator and a forensic auditor, and increasing pay for outside lawyers hired to investigate attorney complaints.

The office is also rolling out new ways to proactively identify potential lawyer misconduct instead of relying solely on complaints, officials added at a press conference highlighting the changes.

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The bar will seek to identify attorney misconduct risk factors, then provide support for lawyers before they get into trouble, said state bar executive director Leah Wilson.

“This move into proactive regulation is new for the bar,” she said. But she and other bar leaders acknowledged that it will take more than minor changes to rebuild public trust in their organization.

Each state is responsible for regulating lawyer conduct. California has the second-largest population of lawyers behind New York, and its disciplinary system has been set by years of critical audits and high-profile scandals, in particular surrounding the downfall of prominent plaintiffs’ lawyer Tom Girardi.

Girardi, who is accused by a rival law firm of using settlement funds meant for the families of victims of the 2018 Lion Air crash to fund a lavish lifestyle, was the subject of numerous complaints over the past four decades, but the bar allowed him to keep his license. The bar ordered an outside investigation of its handling of complaints against Girardi, who was disbarred in June.

State audits have for years raised red flags about delays in attorney misconduct investigations, case backlogs and low rates of discipline. The latest audit found that the bar too often resolves allegations of lawyer misconduct behind closed doors and does not consistently address conflicts of interest with lawyers who come under investigation.

Bar leaders said Monday that they are implementing the audit’s recommendations for improvements. They also said they are looking to address racial disparities in attorney discipline, as well as the perception that the bar is reluctant to pursue disciplinary charges against lawyers at large firms.

“While we have done much, let me be clear. We have more work to do” to reform the disciplinary system, Ruben Duran, chair of the bar’s board of trustees, said Monday.

Read more:

California bar bungled attorney misconduct cases, new audit finds

calif. bar investigates itself over ‘Real Housewives’ husband Girardi

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Thomson Reuters

Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at [email protected]

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