Audit finds California Bar failed to efficiently reform its system to investigate and discipline bad lawyers

California
People walk past the entrance of The State Bar of California office Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

People walk past the entrance of The State Bar of California office Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

The State Bar of California inefficiently reorganized its discipline system, leading to a bigger backlog of cases and allowing bad lawyers to keep practicing longer while under investigation, a state audit said Thursday.

The regulatory arm of the courts responsible for licensing and disciplining lawyers took significantly longer to resolve complaints and disciplined fewer lawyers, the report said.

“The increase in the backlog and the time to complete investigations, despite the decline in discipline, indicate that the State Bar’s reorganization has not improved its efficiency or effectiveness,” Auditor Elaine Howle said.

The bar “strongly disagrees” with some findings but welcomed recommendations for improvement, interim Executive Director Donna Hershkowitz said.

The bar, which licenses more than 250,000 lawyers in the state, operates largely out of public view. But it was in the spotlight six years ago after it fired then-executive director Joseph Dunn for “serious, wide-ranging allegations” against him. Dunn turned around and filed a whistleblower lawsuit, alleging the bar’s chief prosecutor had understated the backlog of cases.

While Dunn lost his case in arbitration, the state auditor had criticized the bar in 2015 for drastically reducing its backlog and imposing less severe punishment on attorneys who cheated clients or violated their duty.

The bar, which has long struggled with clearing its cases, reorganized its discipline system in response to the audit.

Changes it put in place, however, have contributed to a new backlog in cases dragging on more than six months, the report found.

The audit said staff who investigate discipline had gone from being specialists in areas of the law to generalists and their caseloads doubled. Some of the most senior attorneys were promoted into supervisory positions.

The backlog increased 87% — from nearly 1,500 cases at the end of December 2015 to almost 2,800 cases at the end of June 2020, the audit found. During that same period, the time to investigate cases increased 56%.

“These delays allow attorneys under investigation to continue practicing law while their cases are pending, increasing the potential for harm to the public,” the auditor said.

The bar’s annual discipline report sent Tuesday to lawmakers said a drop in cases filed last year because of the pandemic allowed its staff to reduce the backlog by 5% before the end of last year.

The bar also said it had made greater improvements in closing cases it prioritized where a bad lawyer — or someone masquerading as an attorney — posed the greatest threat to the public.

The audit also found the Bar disciplined attorneys “at a dramatically lower rate for reasons it cannot adequately explain.” The total number of cases from 2015 through 2019 that led to discipline — ranging from a slap on the wrist admonishment up to disbarment — declined 54 percent, the audit said.

In 2015, 16,885 cases were closed with 864 lawyers — or 5% — disciplined. In 2019, only 399 lawyers — or 3% — were disciplined of the 15,738 cases closed.

The audit also found that the bar couldn’t assess the effectiveness of its changes because it abandoned a plan to evaluate the results of the reorganization.

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