Thursday, October 7, 2004
New State Bar President Van de Kamp Vows to Make Member Call Center Top Priority
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
If you recently tried to contact the State Bar of California and found yourself being bounced around in voicemail hell, take heart. John Van de Kamp says help is on the way.
The former state attorney general, who will be sworn in as State Bar president Saturday in Monterey, says the long-promised member call center will be a top priority of his year in office.
“That’s something I think we can do sometime in this coming year,” Van de Kamp says, noting that plans for the member center have long been stymied by a shortage of funds. He envisions the member center, plans for which are in the development stage, as “basically a place where they can call, they can get some help,—and we can at least get them pointed in the right direction.”
If the words “member center” conjure up in your mind a place for lawyers to hang out and play pool or ping pong, think again. Van de Kamp is talking about something similar to the ethics hot line that handles complaints about attorneys, but dedicated to answering questions from the attorneys themselves.
State Bar officials concede that it is a modest goal—something most large state bar associations have long provided. But it will require three or four staff positions and spending perhaps as much as $750,000 in the first year of operation.
That is money that hasn’t been available in recent years, which have been marked by flat dues revenue and staff layoffs.
It is the type of modest goal that Van de Kamp says he expects to characterize his year of bar leadership.
Many of his predecessors, Van de Kamp says, have come to the job with “their own personalized agenda of things they wanted to do.”
“In my case it’s going to be a little different, because we have a strategic goal and planning process that we put into place and we just approved our goals and objectives for the Board of Governors as a whole. My obligation is to make sure that we address those.”
The member center was first approved in principle two years ago, and Van de Kamp points out that the bar’s recent efforts to provide new services for members—exactly the kind of services a member center could help them access—are going to provide some of the funding to make it possible.
Last month the board’s Operations Committee, which has authority to act for the board between meetings, approved appointing a new broker for the bar’s sponsored life insurance program. The new arrangement is expected to generate at least some of the money needed to get the member center up and running, Van de Kamp says.
“It’s always been blunted by a lack of money, and now with this insurance money that we expect to come in we’ll have the money to be able to fund it,” he asserts.
If the money from that program is not enough, other funds expected to be generated by similar sponsored programs are likely to become available soon, Van de Kamp says.
“There’ll be other insurance programs that we expect to roll out in the course of this next year and that go through the competitive bidding process,” he points out.
He declares flatly:
“This is not going to come out of bar dues.”
But he says the bar is not rushing into the business of addressing its budget crunch by charging companies for its imprimatur to help them market products like life and malpractice insurance to the state’s lawyers.
“The first goal is to bring the member something that’s advantageous to them. If it’s not advantageous to them it’s not worth doing. That’s our first priority. Secondarily, we get essentially some contribution—that goes back to the bar—.But the most important thing is that this program is worthless unless we are able to provide cost advantageous programs to our members. And the goal here, you see, is to get whatever we get and go back and do a program for members, so it’s a win-win situation.”
Van de Kamp, who last year chaired the board’s Regulation, Admissions and Discipline Oversight Committee, says strengthening the discipline system will be another top priority for the year ahead. He says he expects the bar to increase its focus on minor shortcomings of attorneys that may merit interventions short of suspension or disbarment.
Improving the image of the state’s attorneys will be another goal, he explains.
“I think that we would like to see that lawyers as a whole get the kind of balanced treatment in the media that they deserve—the good things they do as well as the bad things, which always do get picked up,” he observes. “So I hope that we’ll be able to recognize a lot of lawyers for the tremendous things that they do within their own communities—not only for their clients, and the pro bono work, but also for the charitable things that they do, on the boards of community foundations and philanthropic organizations and the rest. That does not get noticed very much, and certainly beyond the legal press.”
He notes that he has already begun recording a series of public service radio spots highlighting information already available through the State Bar. These are intended, he says, both to help in getting that information out and to “make law and lawyers more approachable.”
Van de Kamp says he had the speech he will deliver Saturday, after being sworn in by Chief Justice Ronald M. George at the State Bar convention in Monterey, written more than a week in advance.
“In fact I have to cut it down, frankly, because it was running a little too long,” he declares.
But he acknowledges that he comes to the job with a perspective a little bit different from that of most of his predecessors.
Van de Kamp, 68, spent 25 years in public service before a failed bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1990 sent him into the private sector for virtually the first time. Becoming a federal prosecutor soon after graduating from Stanford Law School, he served briefly as U.S. attorney for the Central District of California and was named the district’s first federal public defender in 1971.
The county’s Board of Supervisors appointed him district attorney in 1975, and he twice won election to that post before making a successful run for attorney general in 1982.
But after the gubernatorial primary loss, to ex-San Francisco mayor and current U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Van de Kamp joined the downtown Los Angeles office of Dewey Ballantine, where he remains of counsel.
While a Dewey Ballantine partner, he explains, he began to think about a run for the State Bar board. He was elected by the lawyers of District 7, which consists of Los Angeles County, in 2001.
“I thought they were short on big firm representation,” Van de Kamp says. “I thought that after the shutdown, getting the bar back on its feet, that I might be able to add something to the Board of Governors and I hoped I could stimulate others to run and get involved that might come from big law firms.”
Though the State Bar was once dominated by big firm lawyers, Van de Kamp says, the pendulum has now swung the other way.
“More and more, it’s just gone the opposite direction, and clearly what you need on the board of governors is a balance, people coming from all walks of the bar, small practice, public practice, mid-sized law firms, big law firms, and the bar should be something that is a desirable place in which to serve,” he comments. “I think we still have a ways to go in that direction. But I hope that I can stimulate interest in the Board of Governors as I get around the state in the next year.”
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company