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California State Bar

It Is Not Effectively Managing Its System for Investigating and Disciplining Attorneys Who Abuse the Public Trust

Report Number: 2020-030

Figure 1
Mandatory License Fees Are the State Bar’s Largest Single Source of Revenue

Figure 1 is a pie chart that describes the sources of the State Bars $211.9 million in total revenue in 2020. Mandatory license fees make up the largest portion of the chart, representing 47 percent of the State Bar’s revenue in 2020. Other revenue, which includes income from leases and interest, makes up 29 percent of its revenue, followed by grants (15 percent), exam fees (6 percent), and voluntary fees and donations (3 percent).

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Figure 2
The State Bar’s Attorney Discipline Process Includes Multiple Levels of Review

Figure 2, a flowchart describing the multiple levels of review in the State Bar’s attorney discipline process beginning from intake and ended with 2.5 percent of cases closed with formal discipline. According to our review of more than 15,700 cases that the State Bar closed in 2019, after receiving complaints and conducting a legal review, the trial counsel’s office determined to close 64 percent of cases and forward 36 percent for investigation. During investigation, the trial counsel determines if there is sufficient evidence to support the allegation of attorney misconduct. If so the complaint advances to pre-filing. Alternatively, the trial counsel’s office may, at it discretion, close a case without imposing discipline, such as by issuing a warning letter. In 2019, 29.38 percent of cases were closed during investigation and 6.2% proceeded to pre-filing. At pre-filing, the trial counsel’s office drafts disciplinary charges for cases that are approved for prosecution in the State Bar Court; however, either party may request an early conference before a judge to discuss a settlement. In 2019, the trial counsel’s office closed 2.7 percent of cases during pre-filing. The remaining 3.5 percent of cases continued to hearing and discipline where the State Bar Court conducts evidentiary hearings and renders a decision with finding and recommendations of discipline. Although 1 percent of cases were closed without discipline, 2.5 percent of cases resulted in formal discipline. In 2019, .2 percent of cases were closed with either public or private reprovals which the State Bar Court has the authority to discipline attorneys without Supreme Court approval. However, in cases involving serious disciplinary issues—including suspension or disbarment—the State Bar Court recommends appropriate disciplinary actions to the Supreme Court for review. In 2019, 2.3 percent of cases were closed with suspensions and disbarments.

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Figure 3
The State Bar’s Backlog of Cases Increased by 87 Percent From December 2015 Through June 2020

Figure 3, a line chart that shows the number of cases in the State Bar’s backlog every six months from December 2015 through June 2020. In December 2015 the State Bar had 1,494 cases in backlog. The number of cases increased to 1,892 in June 2016 to 2,157 in June 2018 before decrease to 1,714 in December 2018. The number of cases declined near the end of each year, as seen in the December numbers, which according to the special assistant was likely due to a focus on reducing the backlog mandated backlog reporting date. The number of cases however continued to increase as June 2019 and June 2020 saw the number of cases in backlog reach 2,597 and 2,791 respectively. Overall, the increase in cases between December 2015 and June 2020 represented an 87 percent increase.

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Figure 4
The Average Duration of the State Bar’s Investigations Has Increased by More Than 50 Percent From 2015 Through 2020

Figure 4, a line chart that shows the average number of days cases took to complete during the State Bar’s investigation phase from 2015 through 2020. Beginning in 2015 it took the State Bar on average 122 days to complete the investigation phase. The amount of time to complete the investigation stage continued to steadily increase each year to 137 days in 2016, 164 days in 2017, and 176 days in 2018. The average number of days in the investigation phase declined from 176 days in 2018 to 174 days in 2019. However, in 2020 the average number of days increased to 190 days to complete the investigation phase. This represented a 56 percent increase between 2015 and 2020.

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