The state agency that regulates California’s legal profession jumped out of the political frying pan this year, but is still feeling searing heat from two new conflicts.
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Bowing to pressure from critical legislators, the State Bar finally agreed to divide its two incompatible roles of licensing (and policing) attorneys and acting as a trade association for the profession. Critics said the agency was neglecting its obligation to weed out incompetent and/or shady lawyers as it pursued its other mission.
The Legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that not only ratified the split but overhauled the State Bar’s board.
As that was occurring, however, the agency became embroiled in another dustup over California’s low passage rate on the licensing examinations it requires aspiring lawyers to take.
Deans of the state’s 21 accredited law schools complained that the required passing score on the exams is too high – in fact, second-highest in the nation – and thus denies licensure to too many of their graduates, especially those from non-white ethnic groups.
California’s passing rate hit a record low of 62 percent in July, including just 56 percent for first-time test takers, one of the lowest in the nation.
Underlying the deans’ complaints is a crackdown on accreditation of their schools by the American Bar Association. Schools with particularly low rates are in danger of losing their accreditation and therefore, in essence, their institutional viability.
The deans pressed their case for a lower passing score in multiple arenas, but the state Supreme Court, which is the ultimate authority on the state’s legal profession, refused to intervene.
“The court expects the State Bar to … continue analyzing whether the exam or any of its components might warrant modification,” the court said.
In effect, therefore, the court tossed the issue back to the agency, setting the stage for continued wrangling as the law schools try to stave off accreditation sanctions.
As if that wasn’t enough angst for one year, the State Bar’s own employee union is now threatening to strike, saying that the agency continues to overpay its executives while stiffing rank-and-file employees, many of them attorneys themselves, on their pay.
SIEU Local 1000 filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Public Employment Relations Board, alleging that the agency had not negotiated on a new contract in good faith and has been attempting to cut, rather than raise, salaries. Its members have also authorized a strike should negotiations continue to bog down.
One factor in the union-management conflict is that the State Bar is headquartered in San Francisco and its employees, therefore, must contend with the Bay Area’s sky-high living costs, especially for housing.
Also, the State Bar’s finances have been in turmoil for several years as it juggled its now-divided priorities, failed to persuade the Legislature to raise mandatory “dues” from licensed attorneys and battled with its former executive director, Joe Dunn, over competing allegations of financial mismanagement.
The State Bar’s unresolved examination issue and the labor conflict will likely push it back into the political spotlight when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Legislators had been critical of the State Bar’s high executive salaries and are also feeling heat from the laws school deans who believe they are fighting for their lives.