Peter Bronson: The State Bar’s public resources
Most non-lawyers probably know two things about the California State Bar: It governs the admission of attorneys to practice, and it disciplines lawyers who violate legal or ethical standards.
The State Bar also offers a number of useful services and publications that are available, generally free of charge, to the general public. Here is a quick overview of some of these offerings.
State Bar Web site
The Bar maintains its Web site at http://www.calbar.ca.gov, and can also be contacted by phone at (415) 538-2000. The resources available to the public are easily accessible on the Web site.
Information about attorneys. On the State Bar Web site, you may click on “Attorney Search” to obtain information about any licensed California attorney, including contact information, educational background, length of time in practice in California, State Bar sections (such as Business Law, Litigation, etc.) to which the lawyer belongs, and whether the lawyer has ever been the subject of disciplinary or administrative proceedings. Use of “Attorney Search” is also a quick way to find out if a person is in good standing with the State Bar and eligible to practice law in California.
How to find an attorney. Clicking on “Public Services” on the Bar Web site will lead to information on how to find a lawyer (including one willing to work on a “pro bono” basis). In addition to information about legal aid agencies, dispute resolution programs and how to find lists of legal specialists, you will find links to certified lawyer referral services – including the Lawyer Referral Service for Nevada County (which also serves Placer County and plans to expand into other neighboring counties).
Complaints about attorneys
The Web site gives instructions on how to make a complaint to the State Bar against a lawyer who may have violated ethical standards. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, a lawyer can be given a warning, placed on probation, suspended from the practice of law for a period of time, or even disbarred – prohibited from practicing law in California.
Legal Security Fund
While it is well known that the State Bar investigates ethical complaints against lawyers, you may be surprised to learn that the State Bar maintains a “Legal Security Fund” that may reimburse up to $50,000 for theft committed by a California lawyer. The Fund covers the loss of money or property resulting from lawyer dishonesty (as distinguished from malpractice or incompetence). To qualify for reimbursement, the client must be able to show that the money or property actually came into the lawyer’s possession and that the loss was caused by the lawyer’s dishonest conduct.
The type of conduct that constitutes “dishonesty” for purposes of the Legal Security Fund includes, among other things: theft or embezzlement of money; refusal to refund unearned attorney fees paid in advance where the lawyer failed to perform the agreed services; and acts of intentional dishonesty or deceit that directly lead to the loss of money or property that came into the lawyer’s possession. The Fund may also reimburse fees paid to a lawyer, but only in very limited cases. The State Bar Web site contains information about how to pursue recovery through the Legal Security Fund.
Disputes over attorney’s fees. When there is a dispute between a lawyer and client over the lawyer’s charges, the lawyer is required to offer the client the opportunity to arbitrate the dispute before the attorney may file a lawsuit against the client. If the client elects to arbitrate, then arbitration is mandatory. Fee arbitration is usually conducted through a local bar association, and the State Bar Web site contains a list of approved local fee arbitration programs.
The State Bar, through its various substantive law “Sections”, proposes legislation each year to add or change legal provisions to California’s codes. For example, the State Bar’s Business Law Section Ð of which I will be 2008-09 chair Ð proposes numerous pieces of legislation each year, a high percentage of which are eventually passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the Governor. While the public does not have a direct role in this process, lawyers can get involved in it through the State Bar. So local businesspersons who see a need for legislation may speak with their lawyers about the possibility of proposing new laws through the State Bar’s legislative program.
The State Bar Web site offers a number of useful publications, in English and Spanish, that can be printed on line or ordered in “hard copy” format Ð usually free of charge for the first copy and for about 50 cents each for additional copies. Some of the more detailed publications include : “Kids & Law Ð An A-Z Guide for Parents”; “Seniors & the Law: A Guide for Maturing Californians”; “When You Become 18”; “Guide to Legal Literacy”; “Legal Health Checklist”; and “The State Bar of California ÐWhat Does It Do, How Does It Work?” (the latter is available on line only).
Other titles include: Hiring a Lawyer; Arrested; Auto Accident; Small Claims Court; Debts; Divorce & Custody; Domestic Violence; Rent; Client Security Fund; Crime Victim; Problem With Lawyer; Wills; Estate Planning; Living Trust; Employee; Resolve a Dispute; Lawyer Referral Services; Jury Duty; Become a Lawyer; and Elder Abuse.
Unlike some states, California has a “mandatory” bar Ð in other words, no one may practice law in California without being a member of the California State Bar. As a result, the rules, programs, services and publications of the Bar are extensive and comprehensive, and affect all practicing lawyers. The resources available to the public can be extremely helpful not only in finding and dealing with attorneys but also in understanding the legal system and one’s legal rights.
Peter C. Bronson, of Nevada County, practices in the areas of creditors’ rights, insolvency, business litigation and mediation. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is not intended as legal advice in any specific business situation or dispute; specific strategic decisions always depend upon the specific facts.
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