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Wednesday, Jun 19, 2024

Most Influential Women Lawyers: State Bar Board of Trustees Adopts Diversity Objectives

The State Bar Board of Trustees earlier this year adopted strategic plan objectives reflecting its mission to support greater access to, and inclusion in, the legal system.

“The commitments we have made today to advance diversity in the legal profession focus appropriately on the State Bar’s unique mission and strengths—standard-setting as a regulatory body, unique locus as a data collector and clearinghouse, as an incubator of innovation, and as a connector within the community of other organizations working toward this shared goal,” said Leah T. Wilson, Executive Director.

Objectives adopted in January of this year include:

Pipeline programs: The Bar will partner with California law schools to study attrition rates for law students of color and identify evidence-based solutions. In addition, the Bar will undertake Bar Exam initiatives, including a review of exam questions from a diversity and inclusion perspective, as well as additional grading analyses to identify potential disparate impacts of specific essay and performance test questions.

Retention and career advancement: The State Bar has begun to collect more complete data on attorney demographics, practice types, and career trajectories. The Bar will also begin surveying attorneys who voluntarily transfer to inactive status. Survey results will support analyses of diverse attorneys’ entry into, retention, and advancement in the legal profession, to inform future efforts.

Statewide leadership: The Bar will develop an annual report card on the state of diversity in the profession and will explore ways that mandatory legal education requirements can be modified to expand and improve elimination of bias training.

Other actions taken by the Board of Trustees included:

2019 BUDGET FINALIZED

The Board of Trustees adopted a 2019 budget that projects $168 million in revenues and $189 million in expenses. The budget reflects the State Bar’s ongoing structural deficit, relying on reserve spending for the third year. The overall deficit in 2018 was $22.5 million, less than originally projected because of efficiencies that saved millions of dollars, as well as a slight increase in projected revenues.

The Board adopted a 2019 budget with reduced capital spending in 2019 to minimize impact on the Bar’s significantly depleted General Fund reserve.  

The Board acknowledged that budget projections for 2020 and beyond demonstrate the unsustainability of the current trajectory, absent an increase in the attorney license fee, the chief source of the State Bar’s General Fund revenue. The license fee of $315 has remained unchanged for 20 years. Absent a fee increase in 2020, the Bar’s budget deficit is projected to rise to approximately $31.9 million, a situation that will require drastic cutbacks in State Bar operations and programs.

“The Bar has undertaken numerous reengineering efforts well in advance of the pending crisis we find ourselves heading toward,” said Wilson. “Many of our efforts have increased access and services to the public and made us more efficient. However, our ability to continue advancing our reform agenda, improving performance of our discipline system in keeping with our public protection mission, and investing in critical information technology and capital infrastructure, is becoming increasingly jeopardized by a static licensing fee that has not even kept up with inflation over the last 20 years.”

Without a fee increase, significant reductions in programs, staff, and capital/technology expense would be required no later than early 2021.

GOVERNANCE CHANGES

Actions taken in January by the Board on its committee structure and governance role reflect the continuation of the Bar’s reform agenda and its work to ensure that the organization’s structure best supports achievement of the State Bar’s mission. These actions are the natural next step continuing the governance reforms undertaken by the State Bar in the past several years, including the separation in January 2018 of trade association and regulatory functions.

The 2017 Governance in the Public Interest Task Force recommended that the State Bar evaluate many of its committees, commissions, and boards. Board and staff review of these bodies continued through 2018.

California Commission on Access to Justice – will separate as an independent body, with 2019 as the transition year.

Legal Services Trust Fund Commission – The Board approved recommendations to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the Board, staff, and the Commission in policy development and grant administration.

Law school accreditation – The Board authorized the Committee of Bar Examiners and Bar staff to pursue an innovative package of improvements to law school accreditation. The accreditation reform package includes recognition of regional and national accreditors, updating rules and guidelines for California-accredited law schools, and allowing accreditation of online law schools. The reforms are designed to maintain a range of affordability options for California law students to pursue a quality legal education while ensuring that California accreditation standards adhere to best practices.

WAIVER OF LATE FEES FOR FEDERAL ATTORNEYS

The federal government shutdown, which ended late today, prompted an action item intended to provide relief for the estimated 4,000 active attorneys in California who work for the federal government. The Board delegated to staff the authority to waive penalties associated with late payments of licensing and other fees by federal government attorneys as needed.

The State Bar of California’s mission is to protect the public and includes the primary functions of licensing, regulation and discipline of attorneys; the advancement of the ethical and competent practice of law; and support of efforts for greater access to, and inclusion in, the legal system.

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