Bar Associations Goals Not Always Clear

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What is the purpose of the bar association? If it is voluntary, it's clear that the organization must cater to and satisfy the needs of its members. Those goals include the offering of education to improve both the technical and management skills of its members — namely, attorneys.

But if the bar association is an integrated or mandatory organization, its goals are not so clear. In California, only one president in recent memory had the courage to suggest that the bar association has two goals: to protect the public and to protect and educate its members. Some people claimed that was heresy.

I see nothing contradictory about having two goals; I don't think they are mutually exclusive. However, over the years, I have ranted that the bar leadership fails its members by focusing so heavily on the protection of the public. That task should be left to a licensing agency. It's appropriate for a licensing agency to protect the public, at the cost of the lawyers.

California is in a unique position. Since 1927, a bill has been in place that permits and sets the dues that the state bar can collect from its members. Since the state has an integrated bar, every lawyer must be a member.

It should be noted that the Legislature became more hostile to the state bar at a time when the bar criticized then-Sen. Pete Wilson for his stand on immigration, a subject of great relevance to the state. As governor, Wilson (with a long memory) vetoed the state bar dues in 1997, the last year he was in office, and the Legislature failed to override the veto. Since that time, the state bar has been less than assertive in its relationship with the Legislature.

Furthermore, since the number of attorneys has decreased dramatically in the Legislature, the remaining members were successful in adopting legislation that states quite clearly that the main function of the state bar is to protect the public.

That philosophy is embodied in the Business and Professions Code of the state of California. The specific language states that "protection of the public shall be the highest priority ..." of the state bar. It's no wonder that lobbying activities and education activities must be done by volunteer associations and individuals with particular expertise. While the state bar conducts many educational programs, they're run under the guise of enhancing the skills of lawyers in order to be better able to serve the public.

Certainly, better-skilled attorneys serve their clients better. However, it seems a stretch to say that's what the Legislature had in mind when it sought to restrict the activities of the organization. The bar association is an integral part of the effective operation of the justice system. Lawyers are important contributors to the introduction and review of legislation. They help the judiciary in many ways, including via pro bono efforts as judges pro tem, and provide services where the rubber hits the road.

Lawyers must have an independent voice when speaking to the Legislature and interacting with their own bar association. An integrated bar association may create more difficulties than benefits.

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