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State Bar Establishes Office to Crack Down on Errant Lawyers

September 15, 1985|EDWIN CHEN | Times Legal Affairs Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In another attempt to crack down on errant lawyers, the California State Bar's governing board on Saturday voted to create an office of investigations in hopes of expediting the discipline process.

The move is intended to clear a growing backlog of about 3,000 consumer complaints that have never been investigated.

"These are war-time conditions. This backlog can be reduced and it should never happen again," said U.S. District Judge Robert E. Coyle of Fresno. He chaired a special Bar subcommittee expediting the disciplinary process, which issued a report in July calling the backlog "unacceptable."

Coyle said the new office, a major recommendation of the July report, would result in doubling efficiency and would be expected to clear the backlog within two years--if implemented quickly.

Fourteen new positions, including seven investigators, will be added to the office. With creation of the office, a goal of 35 to 40 cases an investigator has been set. Each of the 25 Bar investigators now averages 170 active cases.

J. David Ellwanger, the Bar's chief executive who had opposed such an office, was directed by the board to implement the recommendations "as soon as is practicable."

Ellwanger's staff has come under increasing criticism from Bar leaders and lawmakers in Sacramento for being too slow in investigating consumer complaints and too lenient in meting out punishment.

The proposal for the new office had been vigorously opposed by senior Bar staff members, who favor additional investigators but not a reorganization that they said could actually impede the disciplinary process. These staff members maintain that the reorganization would create management chaos, at least in the short term.

The new office is to relieve the Office of the Trial Counsel of its investigatory duties. The latter will continue to prosecute disciplinary cases before the State Bar Court, which will continue to adjudicate disciplinary cases.

8,000 Complaints Annually

The 87,500-member State Bar receives about 8,000 complaints a year, two-thirds of them originating in Los Angeles. It is empowered to privately or publicly "reprove" lawyers for misconduct, but suspensions and disbarments require approval of the California Supreme Court.

Saturday's action was the latest move taken by the Bar's 22-member board intended to improve the system.

Starting Monday, for instance, the formal filing of disciplinary charges against a lawyer will be made public. Before, disciplinary proceedings were secret until some form of public punishment had been tentatively decided upon.

Earlier this month, Gov. George Deukmejian signed legislation, to take effect Jan. 1, to allow the Bar to prohibit a lawyer from practicing while a disciplinary investigation is under way, if the State Bar Court determined that the lawyer's conduct poses an "imminent threat of harm" to the public. Now there is no such mechanism except in cases of criminal convictions.

The board on Saturday also considered a proposal to sponsor legislation or a court ruling requiring lawyers to give clients in writing, before commencing legal work, the amount, the rate and the basis for calculating their legal fees.

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