Dan Walters: California State Bar bill hits competition

dwalters@sacbee.comMay 22, 2013 

Dan Walters

California, it's now acknowledged, has a glut of lawyers.

Thousands of law school graduates cannot find jobs as law firms cut back, as government agencies are squeezed, as corporations trim legal expenses and as technology handles rote legal work.

A new report says that a sixth of California's recent law school graduates are unemployed. The Los Angeles Times reported last month that some jobless lawyers are honing skills by suing schools for overpromising job prospects.

The lawyer glut is acknowledged by the State Bar, the quasi-public entity that licenses lawyers, regulates their behavior and acts as a trade association for the legal profession.

Joseph Dunn, the former state senator who runs the State Bar, told the Times that while the state had seen lawyer gluts in the past, "I don't think any of them rival the situation we are seeing today."

Dunn's remarks struck many in the Capitol as ironic since as a legislator, Dunn made herculean efforts to get a new law school at the University of California, Irvine.

The State Bar appears to be doing more about the glut than wringing its institutional hands. It's sponsoring legislation that could eliminate some competition from providers of do-it-yourself legal forms.

Dunn got a warm reception from the Assembly Judiciary Committee this month as he touted Assembly Bill 888, which would give the State Bar broad powers to pursue – and collect money from – those it deems to be illicitly practicing law.

"Unauthorized" legal practice is already a crime, as it should be. There are certainly bad apples who prey on consumers by offering quasi-legal services such as promising to stop mortgage foreclosures.

AB 888, however, would give the State Bar powers similar to those of district attorneys, the attorney general and other law enforcement agencies, and allow it to collect civil penalties from those it pursues.

Dunn said the bill, carried by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would "allow the State Bar to go after bad actors" and the committee sent it to the Assembly floor, where it was approved last week.

But the State Bar is as much a trade association to protect lawyers' economic interests, as it is a state agency. And the California Association of Legal Document Assistants, whose members provide legal forms and are allowed by state law to give customers factual advice on their use, raised cogent issues.

"Historically, studies have repeatedly demonstrated that the complaints made against legal document assistants are generally made by attorneys, who dislike legal document assistants," a letter to the committee said, adding that "it is little more than a cleverly disguised effort by the Bar to seek additional revenue from non-members of the Bar."

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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