California lawyers just got a wake-up slap from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that has been long overdue. In short, he has said “no” to a State Bar to take yet more money from us that would fund continuing ineptitude. Am I too harsh? I quote the Governor, in part:
I am returning Senate Bill 261 without my signature. This bill would, among other provisions, authorize the State Bar to collect annual bar dues from its members for 2010. In 1997, Governor Pete Wilson vetoed the annual State Bar dues bill, citing numerous concerns that the State Bar had become overly political, unresponsive to its membership and inefficient. Unfortunately, 12 years later, inefficiencies remain unaddressed and questions about the State Bar’s role in the evaluation of judicial nominees suggest that the State Bar’s political agenda continues. . . .
He goes on to cite significant salary increases, escalating costs of disciplinary system and decreasing inquiries, and the lack of internal controls that allowed embezzlement of nearly $676,000 from a former employee.
As the organization charged with regulating the professional conduct of its members, the conduct of the State Bar must be above reproach. Regrettably, it is not.
Unfortunately, he is dead on accurate.
Howard B. Miller, President of the State Bar, responded to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s veto with an opinion column in the California Bar Journal, stating that we need to “think through our values and purposes” and references “candor and honesty,” then reports the forming of various committees. Gee, that ought to help.
I am proposing something a little more bold, perhaps more helpful. Just two proposals that will get us going in the right direction.
Request No. 1: I directly ask, no, I insist, that each and every California lawyer that has taken money from consumers with the promise of helping them obtain debt relief or avoid foreclosure and fraudulently failed to perform such work – RESIGN, NOW! Do not force other lawyers to pay for your prosecution before the State Bar. Do not force the citizens of California to foot the bill for any related criminal investigations. Do not continue to force the legislature to enact emergency laws (i.e. Senate Bill 94) to prohibit conduct that you ought to know is exploitive and fraudulent.
If you have a legitimate defense to an accusation of misconduct (mistaken identity or legitimate factual misunderstanding), feel free to defend your innocence. As for the rest of you, get out of our profession and go sell used cars or something. If you want to make technical legal defenses or have some other lame excuse (see Req #2, below), don’t waste our collective time with it.
Request No. 2: Adopt a zero tolerance policy for unethical and criminal conduct among California lawyers. Stop giving excuses for misconduct.
Anyone who has practiced in criminal court hears ongoing litanies of excuses from criminal defendants (Paris Hilton comes to mind as but one example) as to why their conduct has not matched the expectations of society or the court. They aren’t accepted. Penalties are meted out. But not for lawyers. Let me give you but a few choice examples of “mitigating circumstances” to gross misconduct reported in the Bar Journal this month. None of the lawyers giving these excuses was disbarred despite serious and repeated instances of gross misconduct:
- Numerous health problems from two auto accidents
- Husband’s loss of job
- Death of a grandchild and hospitalization of another grandchild
- Severe emotional difficulties due to depression
- Mother’s illness (several of these)
- Providing for a parent who had had a stroke
- Providing for a friend with a difficult pregnancy
- Cooperation with the bar investigation (how is that a mitigating factor? that should be a given)
- Submitting letters attesting to his good character
- Severe personal problems, including alcoholism and depression
- Out of state frequently
- On maternity leave
- Exceptional legal abilities and dedication to public service (well, other than misusing his identification as a DA to get out of a DUI arrest, interfering with a patrol officer, compromising the relationship between the DA’s office and the CHP, insurance fraud, hit & run charges, lying to a police officer, blaming a non-existence individual for an accident he caused while driving drunk, etc.)
Get real! These are not legimate excuses for repeatedly stealing your clients money, driving drunk, failing to competently represent your clients. If such burdens of life do not qualify you to perform your chosen profession, go choose another profession. Clients trust us with their money, their families, and sometimes even their lives. We owe them to keep ourselves physically, mentally, and ethically prepared to undergo such responsibilities.
I could go on, but I leave you with (thank God finally disbarred) attorney Armand J. Pasano (#1459928) of Montebello who was finally disbarred after “a pattern of conduct during a 14-year-period” who argued that he suffered from “severe emotional difficulties, a protracted and acrimoniouis divorce proceeding that led to stress and excessive consumption of alcohol.” His argument was diluted, however, because the court said he “drank heavily prior to the recent misconduct” (was that 14 years ago, or a couple years ago?) and noted his recent guilty plea to misdemeanor battery of the mother of his children.
If you can’t act in an honest and ethical manner, get out of the legal profession. And enough with the excuses!