At its July 23 meeting, the California State Bar Board of Trustees took steps to strengthen the discipline system in the state, these include establishing a special committee—the Committee on the Special Discipline Case Audit—to undertake an analysis into the disciplinary system in the state, with a particular focus on misappropriation of client funds. The Board also directed this new committee, chaired by Trustee José Cisneros, to work with staff to develop recommendations to strengthen regulation of attorney client trust accounts. As well as this the board recommended new regulations for implementation, focused on attorney ethics and discipline. These include:
- Conducting proactive, random audits of attorney client trust accounts;
- Requiring some or all attorneys to have their trust accounts regularly audited by Certified Public Accountants;
- Requiring annual self-funded audits and reporting of client trust accounts;
- Proposing new and amended statutes, State Bar rules, rules of professional conduct, and other rules governing attorney conduct as well as standards governing discipline for client trust account violations; and
- Assessing technology and other tools that can be employed in this effort.
The Board expects to finalise a set of recommendations by the end of the year, and if implemented these changes would put California at the forefront of client fund protection in the USA. Boar Chair Sean SeLegue has said: “The Board’s actions today demonstrate resolve to identify and remedy shortcomings in our discipline system that impact the State Bar’s ability to carry out its public protection mission. That includes not only ensuring that attorney ethical violations are properly investigated and prosecuted but also innovative means of preventing misconduct and harm to the public from occurring in the first place.”
Read more about the recommendations here.
The State Bar of California has published its second digital annual report. The report was conceptualised following the significant changes in the legal industry brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating rapidly changing policy goals and public protection requirements.
Donna S. Hershkowitz, Interim Executive Director of the state bar had said “Despite the onset of the challenges brought on by the coronavirus, Californians deserve access to a legal system that serves them with integrity and fairness. The State Bar quickly adapted to ensure that our essential work protecting the public continued. The publication of this report is one of many initiatives we are undertaking to support our strategic goals of transparency, accountability, and proactive communication.”
The 2020 report highlights changes implemented by the State Bar to address the pandemic including:
- The establishment of a fully remote call centre to maintain service to the public.
- Shifting examinations to remote administration
- The creation of a new licensing programme for law graduates to start practice before passing the bar exam
- Transitioning the State Bar Court to remote proceedings
- Distributing $11.75 million through the Client Security Fund.
Read the full report here.
At its meeting on May 13, 2021, the California State Bar Board of Trustees adopted new accreditation rules for California accredited law schools. The new rules will come into effect on January 1st, 2022, with law schools required to demonstrate compliance by January 1, 2024, and are designed to incorporate best practices and provide a framework to recognise law schools that are accredited by regional or national accreditors. As well as these rules aim to focus accreditation on its essential purpose, rather than creating extraneous requirements.
Donna Hershkowitz, Interim Executive Director of the State Bar has said.“This effort is the latest example in the State Bar’s many efforts to broaden access to quality legal education in our diverse state. The new accreditation rules will ensure that law schools and the State Bar are focusing on what matters most to ensure positive student outcomes and ultimately support our efforts to protect the public.”
California is one of the few states in the USA that permits accreditation other than by the American Bar Association (ABA), and offers more separate pathways into qualification as a lawyer than any other state. Currently, nearly two dozen law schools are directly accredited by the California Bar, with the goal of offering accessible, affordable, and flexible options for law students.
The revised rules further four key purposes for accreditation of California law schools:
- Consumer protection and transparency;
- Student success;
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion; and
- Preparation for licensure and professionalism.
The approval of the rules, which comes as a culmination of two years of work by the Committee of Bar Examiners and the Committee of State Bar Accredited and Registered Schools. The aim of the reforms is to create a clear, understandable public protection framework for accreditation in keeping with the State Bar’s mission. Each provision in the revamped rules describes a specific, measurable action designed to fulfill one or more of these purposes. Prior accreditation requirements that did not further any of these specific purposes were eliminated, and new requirements were added to ensure that schools are meeting these goals.
Read more about the Board of Trustees meeting here, or read the new rules here.
The State Bar of California has selected the first 20 legal services organizations which will receive grants to hire provisionally licensed lawyers (PLLs) in 2021–2022. The grant-giving programme is designed to allow legal aid organisations to augment their staff, and is part of the Bar’s ongoing effort to address unmet legal need amongst low-income Californians, improving access to justice. The grant is funded by legislation that added an optional $5 donation, as part of the annual California attorney licensing fees.
Contributions are currently projected to total about $1.4 million in 2021–2022, and the awardees were selected by the Legal Services Trust Fund Commission as part of a competitive selection process. The average award is for 12 to 13 months. Of the PLLs to be hired, 17 will collectively serve 43 California counties, at least 30 of which are rural or have relatively few legal aid resources. Three PLLs will support services offered statewide. The majority are expected to help meet legal needs in rural areas and provide legal services related to COVID-19 or natural disasters.
The PLL programme was approved by the California Supreme Court in July 2020 in response to the pandemic, the provisional licensure program provides a limited license to practice law under the supervision of a licensed attorney. The program enabled recent law graduates to begin practice without taking a bar exam. To date, nearly 850 provisionally licensed lawyers have been approved for the program, which will terminate June 1, 2022, unless extended by the Court.
Donna Hershkowitz, Interim Executive Director of the State Bar has said.“These grants provide a powerful dual benefit: expanding the reach of these legal aid organizations when the needs are greater than ever and offering meaningful public interest jobs to new provisionally licensed lawyers. We are grateful to the thousands of licensees whose contributions made these grants possible.”
Read more about the programme and view all the organisations who received an award here.
On the 15th March 2021, the California State Bar published its second biennial report on the progress of its work programmes designed to further diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in California’s legal profession over the last two years.
The report sits against the backdrop of the Bar’s ongoing work on diversity. The Bar’s statutory mission specifies that public protection includes supporting greater access to, and inclusion in, the legal profession, whilst the state’s fee bill (2018) directed the State Bar to implement a plan to increase diversity in the legal profession and provide biennial reports to the Legislature on this topic. In 2019, the State Bar adopted nine concrete DEI objectives as part of its Five-Year Strategic Plan. The report has been written to review the progress of the bar against these objectives.
Key accomplishments raised in the report are:
- The publication of the first Annual Report Card on the Diversity of California’s Legal Profession, including both key diversity data points;
- Completing a groundbreaking study on racial disparities in the attorney discipline system and implementing measures to address these findings;
- Launching the California Bar Exam Strategies and Stories Program, a positive mindset intervention that has since proven to increase California Bar Exam scores for test takers of color; and
- Convening sector-specific diversity summits to respond to report card results and identify action steps in response to the State Bar’s calls to action.
Donna Hershkowitz, Interim Executive Director has said “As the largest legal regulatory agency in the country and one uniquely charged with addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of its mission, the State Bar takes seriously its role and opportunity to impact the profession in our state as well as the national conversation on inclusion and justice for all. Over the last two years, the State Bar has undertaken a wide array of DEI initiatives impacting prospective and current licensees, its many partners and stakeholders, and its internal culture. We are engaged in meaningful and substantive DEI work with an eye towards making real
Read the full report here.
A California State Bar working group established to study access to justice innovations held its first public meeting on the 14th January 2021. The State Bar’s Closing the Justice Gap Working Group, created by the Board of Trustees to carry on with important recommendations from the State Bar’s Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services (ATILS), has been established with the objective of:
- Investigating the development of a regulatory sandbox to foster experimentation with innovative systems for delivery of legal services
- Exploring amendments to the Rules of Professional Conduct regarding the ability of lawyers to share fees with nonlawyers
- Examining the addition of rule 5.7 to the Rules of Professional Conduct addressing the delivery of nonlegal services by lawyers and businesses owned or affiliated with lawyers
- Considering amendments to the Certified Lawyer Referral Service statutes and Rules of the State Bar to enhance efforts to expand access to legal services.
The task force chair Justice Alison M. Tucher, Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division 4, in San Francisco has said “The immense challenges of the past year have only heightened the needs that this group’s work is intended to address. Fortunately, meeting virtually enables us to bring together a truly remarkable working group, all of whom are volunteering their expertise to help California move forward. We are honored and excited to get started.”
The working group is made up of 20 state, national, and international experts an is expected to submit recommendations to the Board of Trustees no later than September 2022. Each recommendation is expected to balance the dual goals of public protection and increased access to justice.
Read more about the meeting here.
The State Bar’s “First Annual Report Card on the Diversity of California’s Legal Profession,” (PDF) provides baseline data on the diversity and workplace satisfaction of California’s attorney population across multiple demographic groups and employment sectors. The report brings into stark reality that despite significant growth in the proportion of attorneys who are women and people of color over the past 30 years, California’s attorney population remains far from reflective of the state’s diversity.
Among the Report Card’s key findings:
- White attorneys account for nearly 70 percent of California’s active licensed attorney population, while people of color constitute 60 percent of the state’s population.
- Latinos are particularly underrepresented in California’s legal profession, accounting for a mere 7 percent of active attorneys.
- In the last three decades, the proportion of new attorneys who are Asian or multiracial has more than tripled, and the proportion of new Latino attorneys has doubled, but the proportion of new attorneys who are Black has remained stagnant.
- Nearly three-quarters of California attorneys work in the private sector. Increasing the diversity of this sector alone will have a transformative impact on the profession.
- The government and nonprofit sectors, which together make up only 17 percent of the profession, are the most diverse, but women and people of color remain underrepresented at leadership levels in these sectors.
- Women, people of color, LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities consistently report lower levels of satisfaction with workplace experiences, such as salary and opportunities for advancement and career development, than their white male counterparts.
California Bar Exam Strategies and Stories Program
An online learning program designed to help applicants prepare for the California Bar Exam is showing promising results, measurably increasing the likelihood of passing the exam, a two-year analysis indicates. Researchers found that the California Bar Exam Strategies and Stories Program increased the likelihood of participants passing the bar exam ranging between 6.8 to 9.6 percentage points, controlling for other factors. The impact was even higher for applicants in disadvantaged groups, including those in underrepresented racial/ethnic populations and those who are first-generation college students.
At its July 16 meeting, the State Bar Board of Trustees approved a plan aimed at improving equity in the attorney discipline system, following up on the bar’s first-ever study on racial disparities in the disciplinary system. The first group of reforms aim to expand representation by counsel when an attorney faces a disciplinary investigation.
“The State Bar is moving forward with concrete, specific actions that we believe will not only target the disparities noted in Professor Farkas’s research, but also make the discipline system work better for everyone.” said Donna S. Hershkowitz, Interim Executive Director.
The study found that lack of representation by counsel during an investigation into an attorney by the State Bar was a statistically significant predictor of later discipline, the report also revealed that African American respondents were represented by counsel about half as frequently as other groups in the study.
The State Bar has said that they will:
- Measure and report data on representation for attorneys in the discipline system;
- Pilot-test messages informing respondent attorneys of the value of representation by counsel in disciplinary proceedings to evaluate the most effective method of encouraging representation; and
- Work with the Association of Discipline Defense Counsel to develop and distribute a roster of attorneys who could provide low-cost and pro bono case evaluations to respondent attorneys.
Read the full report, or read the State Bar Association’s announcement about the changes.
The Board of Trustees of the State Bar of California took a 9-2 decision on the 14th May 2020 to form a working group to look into forming a regulatory sandbox in which innovative legal service providers would be subject to fewer regulations. This could include limiting unauthorised practice of law rules, as well as removing limits on fee sharing and partnership between lawyers and non-lawyers.
The decision is a major step forward in a potential move towards innovative business structures in California, following a vote to delay the decision by the Board in March, with board members saying they needed more time to consider the proposals.
Following the board meeting, which was held over Zoom, Chairman Alan Steinbrecher (who as Chairman did not vote) said: “This is a significant step and I think it will lead to an exciting future,”.
For more information see: