SAN FRANCISCO — The head of the beleaguered State Bar of California announced Monday that he will leave the lawyer licensing agency to join Gov. Gray Davis' administration.
The departure of bar Executive Director Steve Nissen comes just as the bar is attempting to restore its lawyer discipline system, which shut down last summer but is being revived as a result of emergency intervention by the California Supreme Court. The bulk of bar spending usually goes toward policing lawyers.
Nissen, a longtime friend of Davis, will become his special assistant in charge of overseeing innovation in government projects. Nissen became the bar's top administrator in November 1997, at a $200,000 salary and presided over the bar when former Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a routine dues authorization bill, sending the agency into financial crisis.
Sources close to the bar said they believe Nissen's departure will be a distraction for the agency, but will not impede restoration of the lawyer discipline unit. The bar reinstated its consumer hotline this week on a part-time basis and will begin prosecuting new cases next month.
Judy Johnson, the bar's chief trial counsel, said Nissen's resignation will have minimal impact. The bar has not yet announced his replacement.
"We hope it will be a win-win for us all," Johnson said. "It is a great personal and career opportunity for Steve. It is good for the bar in that we will have as one of the governor's aides a former executive director who knows us and hopefully will be an advocate within the ranks of the governor's office."
The veto of the dues bill left the bar without the ability to collect the bulk of its dues from the state's 130,000 lawyers. Massive layoffs left no staff to investigate consumer complaints, which numbered about 7,000 when the state Supreme Court intervened in December.
The court, acting on a bar petition, ordered the state's lawyers to resume paying partial dues to finance lawyer discipline. The court called its action a response to an "unprecedented emergency threatening the protection of the public."
But restoration of the discipline system has been slow, and some staff members have been frustrated by its pace. The bar is expected to win legislative approval of a dues bill in this session to restore funding at prior-year levels.
"I leave the state bar with a sense of sadness at saying goodbye to many fine individuals," Nissen said in a prepared statement, "but I go to Sacramento with a renewed sense of optimism for California as we prepare to enter a new century."
Before moving to the bar, Nissen, 47, served as executive director of Public Counsel, the largest pro bono law office in the nation. He will receive a salary of $92,150 in his new post.
Bar President Ray Marshall noted in a statement that Nissen inherited "political turmoil and major upheaval."
"Nissen handled the job of stabilizing the bar and positioning it for the future with consummate skill, dedication and grace," Marshall said.