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Attorney Privilege 

The state bar is supposed to punish dishonest attorneys. Instead, it too often coddles them

Wednesday, Jul 18 2007
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To which Robert Fellmeth says, "People depend on attorneys. When they screw up, there has to be consequences." Fellmeth, head of the Center for Public Interest Law in San Diego, formerly served as the bar's discipline monitor. In that role, he audited the system's performance, and he dismisses defense attorney arguments as so much whining.

"Practicing law is a privilege, not a right," he says. "People — clients — are relying on you. You don't want to see lawyers have their reputations needlessly sullied, but there has to be a safeguarding of consumer interests."

In fact, the California Supreme Court has written that "the purpose of disciplinary proceedings is not to punish the attorney, but to protect the public, to preserve public confidence in the profession and to maintain the highest possible professional standards for attorneys."

Robert Hawley, the bar's deputy executive director, admits to the awkwardness of both shielding consumers and acting as a buffer between lawyers and vindictive ex-clients.

At the same time, he quips, "As long as everyone's complaining, you must be on the right track."

Hawley and Scott Drexel, who heads the chief trial counsel office, deny the bar goes easy on its members. That criticism, if still persistent, has quieted since the agency switched in 1988 from a discipline system filled by volunteers to one staffed by full-salaried professionals. But they concede that, like any bureaucratic body, the agency is limited by budget.

The bar spends $43 million a year on its discipline system, with most of the funds generated through annual membership dues. The money, however, goes to more than investigating and prosecuting cases, covering the costs of the State Bar Court, substance abuse counseling for attorneys, and fee arbitration, among other programs.

As a result, Drexel says, "We're not necessarily interested in prosecuting every tiny technical violation or ethics lapse." But, he quickly adds, "It's a legitimate concern whether attorneys are treated more lightly than they should be."

Lissa Jacobson, angry about her cats, looks back at her legal fiasco and blames herself for sticking with her young attorney. But she also faults Garcia for attempting to turn a lawsuit into an advocacy campaign, and for the $77,000 in sanctions she had to pay. The Supreme Court eventually ordered Garcia to make restitutions to Jacobson, who earns a living as a day trader, but the total will amount to only a few thousand dollars.

Not long after finally extricating herself from Garcia, Jacobson left California. But her financial and psychological wounds remain all too fresh. "I was completely betrayed by the very person who was supposed to be representing me. It's devastating."

About The Author

Martin Kuz

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