The State Bar of California Overview
The State Bar of California: What Does It Do? How Does It Work?
With more than 247,000 members (December 2013), the State Bar of California is by far the largest state bar in the country. Nearly 182,000 State Bar members actively practice law in California, while the rest retain their licenses as inactive members. To practice law in California, applicants must pass the California Bar Examination and pay their annual membership fees to the State Bar of California.
California was one of the first states to unify its bar in 1927. A unified, or integrated bar, means simply that membership is mandatory for all attorneys who are licensed to practice law in the state. More than half of the states in the country have unified bars.
What does the State Bar do?
For more than 85 years, the State Bar of California has shaped the development of the law, regulated the professional conduct of the state’s lawyers and provided greater access to legal services for all citizens. Created by the state legislature in 1927, the State Bar is a public corporation within the judicial branch of government, serving as an arm of the California Supreme Court. All State Bar members are officers of the court. Over the years, the State Bar has responded to the demands of a changing society, educating and informing both its members and the public.
Who governs the State Bar?
The State Bar is currently governed by a 23-member Board of Trustees. But the makeup and size of the board will change between 2012 and 2014. Four positions will be eliminated as the members’ terms expire, eventually decreasing the number of members to 19.
Six lawyer members will be elected from State Bar regions based on California’s six appellate court districts. Five lawyer members will be appointed by the California Supreme Court. Two lawyer members will be appointed by the Legislature, one by the Senate Committee on Rules and another by the Speaker of the Assembly.
The board will continue to have six members of the public, four appointed by California’s governor, one by the state Senate Committee on Rules and one by the Speaker of the Assembly.
How is the State Bar funded?
The bar’s programs are financed primarily by fees paid by attorneys and applicants to practice law. In 2011, the bar’s general fund budget was more than $64 million, over 75 percent of which funded the bar’s attorney disciplinary activities.
How are members admitted?
To practice law in California, State Bar applicants must pass a rigorous three-day examination, a test of their knowledge of the Rules of Professional Conduct and a screening for moral character. The exam, considered one of the toughest in the nation, is administered by the Committee of Bar Examiners (CBE).
What is the attorney discipline system and how does it work?
The State Bar’s discipline system is designed to protect the public, the courts and the profession from attorneys who violate ethical rules covering their professional conduct. Consumers with complaints about an attorney may call the bar’s toll-free number:
The Office of the Chief Trial Counsel, which is responsible for reviewing charges of lawyer misconduct, then investigates and prosecutes these complaints.
When the attorney complaint phone number is called, a specially trained complaint analyst in the Office of Intake/Legal Advice receives the call and determines the nature of the allegation.
If a possible violation of the bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct seems to exist, a complaint form is sent to the caller and information gathering begins. Complaint forms are also available on the State Bar’s website: http://www.calbar.ca.gov.
In some cases, the bar has no jurisdiction, but seeks to refer the caller to an appropriate agency. In other cases, the bar, by intervening, successfully re-establishes a positive attorney/client relationship between the two parties.
If there is reason to proceed with a complaint, it is sent to the Office of Investigation where formal allegations of misconduct are pursued. At the end of an investigation – usually within six months – if it is concluded that the charges involve probable misconduct, the Office of Trials files formal charges and assumes responsibility for prosecuting them in State Bar Court.
The State Bar of California is the only state bar in the nation with independent professional judges dedicated to ruling on attorney discipline cases. The independent State Bar Court hears the charges and has the power to recommend that the California Supreme Court suspend or disbar those attorneys found to have committed acts of professional misconduct or convicted of serious crimes. For lesser offenses, it may issue public or private reprovals.
Also, the State Bar Court can temporarily bar lawyers from the practice of law when they are deemed to pose a substantial threat of harm to clients or the public. Lawyers may seek review of State Bar Court actions in the California Supreme Court.
The State Bar also recommends that the Supreme Court accept lawyers’ resignations with disciplinary charges pending and immediately places such lawyers on inactive status until their resignations take effect.
Since 1989, the State Bar Court has used full-time judges appointed by the California Supreme Court, legislature and governor. The court is divided into two departments — a Hearing Department and a Review Department, headed by a presiding judge.
The Hearing Department is the trial level of the State Bar Court. Five full-time judicial positions are split between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Supreme Court appoints two of the hearing judges, while the governor, the Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate Committee on Rules appoints one hearing judge each.
The Review Department is the appellate level of the State Bar Court, consisting of the presiding judge and two lawyer judges. All review judges are appointed by the Supreme Court.
Are there other State Bar client assistance programs?
The Client Security Fund was created in 1972 to reimburse clients who lose money as a result of an attorney’s theft of client funds while acting as a lawyer. Administered by a seven-member commission, the CSF is funded by a $40 (2009) annual assessment on all active bar members. A maximum of $50,000 is reimbursable if the loss occurred before Jan. 1, 2009. A maximum of $100,000 is reimbursable rules if the loss occurred on or after Jan. 1, 2009.
The Mandatory Fee Arbitration Program arbitrates fee disputes between attorneys and their clients in an informal, out-of-court setting. Arbitration is mandatory for the attorney if requested by the client. Most arbitrations are heard by 44 local bar programs approved by the State Bar. The State Bar arbitrates if there is not a local bar program or if a party does not believe that a fair hearing is possible through the local program.
What State Bar programs promote ethical conduct for lawyers?
Maintaining the standards of the legal profession and ensuring the competent delivery of legal services are the highest priorities for the State Bar.
The State Bar’s Ethics Hotline (800-2-ETHICS) enables attorneys to discuss ethical questions with trained staff members who will refer them to the appropriate rules, opinions and case law so an informed decision can be made.
With authorization from the State Bar, lawyers who commit minor misdeeds may attend the State Bar’s Ethics School. In lieu of discipline proceedings, these members may pay a fee and attend eight hours of instruction about professional responsibility. The goal of the Ethics School Program is to retrain attorneys through education before they become chronic violators of ethics rules.
If attorneys experience problems with substance abuse or burnout, they can receive confidential assistance by calling the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), 866-436-6644. LAP provides confidential rehabilitation support for attorneys dealing with substance abuse or mental illness. Professional and peer assistance is also available to attorneys suffering from stress, burnout, depression or chemical dependency. Lawyers may refer themselves to LAP or be referred through the bar’s discipline system.
Are California lawyers required to keep up their skills?
Yes. All California attorneys are now required to complete 25 hours of continuing legal education every three years. The State Bar is the first in the nation to require at least one of those hours cover the elimination of bias in the legal profession, and one of a handful of bars to require another hour on chemical dependency and alcohol abuse.
The State Bar offers educational programs through its 16 sections that focus on specialized fields of law. The bar’s sections are:
Approved educational activities are offered at the bar’s Annual Meeting and other conferences throughout the year, including through online continuing legal education.
What is the public education campaign?
As part of its consumer education efforts, the State Bar offers free, easy-to-read consumer guides about everyday legal problems often encountered by the public. Some titles are available in other languages. You can order this information online from the State Bar website.
In addition, the State Bar also provides the public with Consumer Information, including how to file a complaint against an attorney and how resolve a fee dispute with your attorney. We also have legal information on the website in Spanish.
For those planning on writing their own wills, the State Bar offers a fill-in-the blank statutory will form for Californians with simple estates. The will is easy to execute and legally binding.
How does the bar communicate with the public?
To keep the public informed about the bar, the legal profession and substantive developments in the law, the bar’s Office of Communications and Information Services issues e-briefs and news releases and assists reporters who want to learn more about State Bar issues and programs.
How do I obtain information about lawyers?
Information on any attorney in the State of California can be obtained on the bar’s website, http://www.calbar.ca.gov/ (go to Attorney Search), or by calling 800-843-9053. All members of the State Bar, their addresses, telephone numbers, educational backgrounds and any records of public discipline are on file and considered public record.
More general questions about the profession should be directed to the bar’s Office of Media and Information Services (415-538-2283) or the American Bar Association (312-988-5000).
Does the bar evaluate judicial candidates?
Yes. State law requires California’s governor to submit the name of each person nominated for a judgeship to the bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE). The commission reviews the qualifications of each nominee and then makes a confidential recommendation to the governor.
What role does the bar play in providing free legal services?
Did you know?: The term “pro bono” derives from “pro bono publico,” a Latin phrase meaning “for the public good.”To help State Bar members fulfill their professional obligation to provide quality legal service to any citizen in need — which is reflected in the bar’s stated goal of each member contributing 50 pro bono hours per year — the Office of Legal Services, Access and Fairness helps local bar associations, legal service organizations and other groups develop pro bono programs and train lawyers to provide free and low-cost legal services to people who cannot afford to pay for counsel.
The State Bar waives active membership fees for members of the Emeritus Attorney pro bono program to encourage retired attorneys to use their expertise to provide legal services to low income Californians.
The bar also certifies Lawyer Referral Services throughout the state, establishing standards for organizations offering members of the public a choice of attorneys to represent them.
Support is also provided to the State Bar Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services to identify, develop and support improvements in the delivery of legal services to the poor and middle-income individuals.
The Legal Services Trust Fund program was established by the legislature in the early 1980s to provide money to help fund civil legal services for indigent Californians. The program is funded by interest-bearing demand trust accounts held by attorneys for their clients. Since its creation, more than $230 million has been distributed to legal services programs serving the poor statewide. The Legal Services Trust Fund Program also distributes the Equal Access Fund, a $10 million annual state fund for improving the fair administration of justice for low income Californians.
Does the bar certify other services?
The bar’s Board of Legal Specialization certifies nearly 4,200 attorneys as legal specialists in one of 11 fields:
A directory of certified legal specialists in California, which is a resource for consumers and lawyers who are seeking specialized legal advice, is available on the State Bar’s website. In addition to legal specialists, the State Bar’s Office of Special Admissions and Specialization is responsible for certification in 10 other areas:
How does the bar assist local and specialty bar associations?
The Office of Bar Relations Outreach provides program development and support services to more than 235 voluntary bars throughout the state.
What role does the State Bar play in achieving diversity in the profession?
In 2001, the State Bar approved the creation of the Center for Access and Fairness. The center works toward promoting diversity in the legal profession and providing support for the bar’s access and fairness committees. In 2005-06, the bar established a “diversity pipeline” education initiative in an effort to interest youths of all ages to pursue careers in the legal profession. Seminars are held and diversity awards are presented each year to further these goals. Elimination of bias and diversity activities are funded by voluntary contributions.
How can new attorneys get more involved in the State Bar?
Membership in the California Young Lawyers Association (CYLA) is automatic for members who are 36 or under or in their first five years of active membership in the State Bar. Among other activities, CYLA offers new members of the profession its publication “The California Guide to Opening and Managing a Law Office” (in collaboration with the Law Practice Management and Technology Section). Through its publications and programs, CYLA offers many opportunities for young members to get a good start in the profession.
How can members participate in shaping State Bar policy?
Lawyers are encouraged each year to apply for approximately 200 open positions on more than 40 bar committees where they can volunteer their special skills and expertise. Volunteers can participate in committees or commissions dealing with such issues as the selection of judges, professional responsibility, access and fairness in the legal profession, legal specialist certification, bar admission, bar member insurance and many other areas. The Board of Trustees seeks committee members (attorneys and members of the public) from various backgrounds, fields of practice and areas of the state.
What role does the bar play in legislation?
Each year the State Bar sponsors legislation which, following the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Keller v. State Bar of California, may pertain only to regulating the legal profession or improving the administration of justice.
The bar also reviews other law-related bills through its committees and sections that specialize in various areas of the law. The views of these sections and committees and the Board of Trustees are communicated to legislators by the bar’s Office of Governmental Affairs.
What is the California Bar Foundation?
In 1990, the State Bar sponsored the creation of the California Bar Foundation, a separate entity that provides scholarships and funding to a variety of organizations throughout the state whose projects help achieve the foundation’s goals.
As one of its primary missions, the California Bar Foundation advances the public’s understanding of the legal system and the role of attorneys in it. The foundation, which is supported by individual and corporate donations, also champions access to our system of justice by all people and works to foster confidence in the rule of law, the role of lawyers and the function of the judicial system.
Recent generous contributions have enabled it to provide funding for a wide range of projects – such as the bar’s “Kids and the Law,” “When You Become 18” and “Seniors and the Law” – that help educate and enlighten the public about their legal rights and responsibilities.
The mission of the State Bar:
Protection of the public is the highest priority of The State Bar of California.
Values of the State Bar:
1. We strive to protect the public by developing, supporting and enforcing rigorous standards of competence, ethical behavior and commitment to public service in the legal profession.
Source: The State Bar of California Five-Year Strategic Plan 2012 – 2016 Feb. 5, 2012
2. We work to strengthen the State Bar’s leadership and accountability in improving the administration of justice and ensuring the rule of law in our civil society.
3. We value a culture of transparency and commitment to continuous improvement.
4. We believe that all people should have access to high-caliber legal services, regardless of their financial or other circumstances.
5. We work to provide services and benefits to members that promote a culture of collegiality and excellence in the practice of law.
6. We seek to promote economic, racial and geographic diversity in the legal community in an effort to solidify our ties to California’s vibrant multicultural demographic.