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California state auditor claims state fails to hold lawyers accountable

Clients hire attorneys for legal representation during some difficult situations. Sometimes attorneys provide legal counsel during family law disputes like divorce and child custody matters, others navigate employment law disputes and estate planning needs. Whatever the legal issue, those who seek representation depend on their attorneys to advocate for their interests.

There are professional rules of conduct that help protect vulnerable clients. Each state has an organization that administers a disciplinary system to help deter misconduct and better ensure clients receives competent representation. In California, that organization is the State Bar of California.

But what happens when this organization fails to protect the public? That is the question recently posed after an investigation into the workings of the State Bar of California.

What led to this question?

The Auditor of the State of California conducted an audit of the State Bar’s attorney discipline process and found that group has repeatedly failed to prevent attorneys from violating professional standards.

One of the main issues found during the investigation was that of multiple violations. In one example a single attorney was the subject of 165 complaints and the State Bar has yet to impose a form of public discipline. In another, an attorney was the subject of 87 complaints over a span of 20 years. Clients accused this attorney of several ethical violations, including the misappropriation of funds. But the State Bar did little to stop the attorney’s actions or protect the clients. Most of the disputes were handled with non-public measures, like a private reprimand. It took a federal money laundering conviction before the State Bar considered disbarring the attorney.

What can the public do to address this issue?

The Auditor recommends the State Bar develop better criteria for public notification and make use of the American Bar Association’s databank to help check on attorney’s standings in other jurisdictions.

Clients can also help. Clients can hold attorneys who fail to meet ethical standards accountable through a legal malpractice claim. This serves two goals. First, it can result in funds for the client who suffered damage from the attorney’s actions and second, it can deter others from making the same mistakes.