But that’s just one of a number of deficiencies noted in the auditor’s latest report (pdf)―only the second in five years―on the nation’s largest state Bar association. The 249,000-member Bar isn’t tough enough on bad lawyers, it remains understaffed despite running a surplus, top officials make questionable financial decisions and decisions lack transparency.
“The State Bar has not consistently fulfilled its mission to protect the public from errant attorneys and lacks accountability related to its expenditures,” according to the report.
The audit covered 2009-2014 and leveled some of its heaviest criticism for behavior in the early years. The Bar attacked a backlog of 5,174 complaints about lawyers with gusto in 2009, and cleared 66% of them in one year. But in doing so, “it may have compromised the severity of the discipline imposed on attorneys in favor of speedier types of resolution,” Auditor Elaine Howle wrote. Well, maybe not “may have.”
“To reduce its backlog, the State Bar allowed some attorneys whom it otherwise might have disciplined more severely—or even disbarred—to continue practicing law, placing the public at risk.
The auditor knew this because the California Supreme Court, which must review and sign off on the decisions, kicked back 27 cases in 2012 “due to the appearance of insufficient levels of discipline.” Upon re-review, the Bar increased the discipline in 21 of the cases and elevated five of them to disbarment.
An additional 131 attorneys whose complaints were settled in 2010 and 2011 ended up being disciplined later. Twenty-eight of them were eventually disbarred.
The auditor suggested that the Bar might have devoted more resources to disciplining its members if it hadn’t spent $76.6 million in 2012 to purchase and renovate a building in Los Angeles. Lawmakers approved a five-year $10 special assessment on its membership, starting in 2009, to pay for a new Bar building in Southern California.
But that only generated $10.3 million. The Bar made up for the rest by selling an L.A. parking lot for $29 million, borrowing $25.5 million and transferring $12 million between accounts (some of which was dedicated for other purposes).
The auditor said the Bar was not very transparent about its maneuvers, and “underestimated the total cost by more than $50 million” in an April 2012 report to the Legislature. She suggested the Bar had too much money on its hands, and that lawmakers should consider reducing the membership dues that support it.
The Bar accepted all the Auditor’s criticism, welcomed the input and agreed with most of the recommendations, some of which it said had already been dealt with.