State Bar’s Annual Fee Bill Would Pave the Way for Improving Attorney Misconduct Standards

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By Andrea Lavelle

 

SB 211 (Umberg), as amended September 2, 2021, is the State Bar’s annual “fee bill.” This bill would amend sections 6140 and 6141 of the Business and Professions Code to authorize the Bar to assess 2022 base licensing fees at $395 for attorneys who actively practice law in California and $97.40 for inactive members. These amounts are the same as the fee amounts for 2021.

The bill would also amend section 6094.5 of the Business and Professions Code to alter how the Office of Chief Trial Counsel, which is responsible for prosecuting attorney misconduct, handles complaints. The bill’s author referenced the California State Auditor’s report released on April 29, 2021, which found that “the State Bar’s backlog grew by 87 percent from the end of December 2015, to the end of June 2020” and that the backlog has become a public risk. The amendments aim to ensure that matters are handled competently, accurately, and timely. The Bar would be required to propose case standards by October 21, 2022, and these standards would consider several enumerated but non-exhaustive factors, such as the risk of public protection and the complexity of cases. In addition to incorporating a review of attorney discipline systems in at least five other states, the amended processing standards would include consultation with attorney discipline experts and reports from the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the California State Auditor.

An earlier version of the bill made the State Bar’s fee collection contingent on the appointment of a Chief Trial Counsel, which had been vacant for over five years. On August 27, 2021, the State Bar Board of Trustees appointed George Cardona as Chief Trial Counsel. As a result of his appointment, the contingency provision was dropped. The state Senate is expected to confirm Cardona in 2022.

The bill, as proposed to be amended, would seek an outside, independent audit of the State Bar’s discipline system to understand what went wrong in the highly publicized Thomas Girardi investigation and how to ensure that this type of mishandling does not happen again. The amendments would direct the State Auditor, by April 15, 2022, to conduct an independent audit to determine whether the State Bar’s attorney complaint and discipline process adequately protects the public from misconduct by licensed attorneys or those who wrongfully hold themselves out as licensed attorneys. Due to concerns of systemic racism and discriminatory impacts of the State Bar’s admissions and disciplinary systems, this bill would also direct the State Auditor, as part of her audit of the discipline system discussed above, to examine data trends that could suggest racial or gender inequities in outcomes.

SB 211 would also allow a qualified legal services project or support center under section 6213 of the Business and Professions Code to allocate a minimum $10,000 in grant funding to law students and graduates, with preference to those projects or centers that serve rural or underserved communities regardless of the immigration or citizenship status of the client.

The bill would also add section 6210.5 to the Business and Professions Code, giving more authority and autonomy to the Legal Services Trust Fund Commission. The Commission would administer funds to support certain qualified legal projects and qualified service centers. The bill specifies details about the commissioners, including eligibility, appointment requirements, and term limits. It also would require the Commission to provide a funding report.

SB 211 was sent to the Governor’s desk on September 13, 2021.

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