Tuesday, March 15, 2016
LACBA Should Swerve From Its Perilous Course
The Los Angeles County Bar Association is alienating its membership, generating the prospect of hurtful consequences. Yet, the leadership is unbending.
Communications appearing below reflect the growing discontent on the part of members.
So great is that discontent that a Council of Sections has been formed, comprised of 21 sections of the organization—sections that are fed up with being dictated to by “LACBA Central,” a term coined by Bradley S. Pauley, chair of the Appellate Courts Section.
LACBA Central forbids sections from holding events unless they are approved; delays in saying “yes or no” are typically so long that events have had to be cancelled; when approval does come with sufficient time for an event to be staged, it generally mandates prices too high to render attendance feasible. It is—under a policy that contravenes an existing bylaw—giving sections no control over their own finances, forbidding a profit from one event to be applied to a showcase event that might run in the red but attract or maintain section membership. All revenues go into LACBA’s big pot, in defiance of the bylaw, which calls for separate accounts for each section.
LACBA President Paul Kiesel is seeking to ramrod the adoption by the Board of Trustees of a bylaw amendment, approved by the Executive Committee (comprised of the officers, immediate past president, and the president and president-elect of the Barristers) which would legitimate the illegitimate practice. That amendment is vigorously opposed by the Council of Sections.
Trustees appear to be expected by the Executive Committee to merely rubber-stamp any of their actions. Materials which trustees should carefully scrutinize are provided late in the day before their meetings. The implied message to trustees is akin to a command, “Don’t read it, just sign.” Kiesel expects the bylaw amendment to pass.
If it does, there should at least be dialogue beforehand with the opponents of the measure, with their points objectively considered, and the possibility of compromise explored. In fact, the Council of Sections has offered a compromise proposal. Trustees who are dutiful, and not pawns of Kiesel, might even entertain the thought of opposing the proposed bylaw change.
The Council of Sections has invited the trustees to sit around a table with section representatives late tomorrow afternoon at the Los Angeles Athletic Club to discuss the proposed bylaw amendment and other concerns about LACBA policies and practices. This newspaper’s co-publisher and general counsel is a trustee, and she plans to be there—but other trustees have not, so far, expressed a like intention.
Why? Kiesel is actively urging their non-participation. Plainly, he disfavors a forum over which he is not presiding, where he is not controlling, limiting and shaping the discussion.
When Kiesel gained the presidency of LACBA, he somehow fancied himself to have ascended to a throne. Repeatedly, he has displayed arrogance and inflexibility. He is much a source of what LACBA past President John Carson, chair of the Council of Sections, and past President Charles Michaels, a member of that body representing the Corporate Law Section, have described as widespread “angst” among members as to the future of LACBA.
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM is that the Executive Committee, with the acquiescence of the trustees, is giving away heaps of the association’s money. The causes may be worthy, but LACBA is supposed to be a bar association, not an eleemosynary institution. It is the irresponsible squandering of funds that is causing the supposed financial crisis, used to justify the imposition of high prices.
This newspaper has previously pointed to the financial statement by the Counsel for Justice, the charitable arm of LACBA, for the period ending Dec. 31, 2014. It says:
“Counsel for Justice reimburses the [Los Angeles County Bar] Association for certain administrative expenses incurred by the Association on its behalf. For the year ended December 31, 2014, these administrative expenses amounted to $552,302, of which $546,375 was forgiven by the Association. In addition, as of December 31, 2014, Counsel for Justice owes the Association $2,301,061.
“The Association has represented that it will continue to support Counsel for Justice for the foreseeable future.”
When LACBA members pay their dues online, they have the option of making a donation to the Counsel for Justice. The implication is that they will be donating only if they choose to do so. This is deceptive; they are donating whether they want to or not, given that a large chunk of their dues payment is routed to that entity.
THE SOLUTION TO the association’s financial woes is obvious: sever the Counsel for Justice from LACBA. It stood on its own before, as the Foundation of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. Let it be funded through voluntary contributions from individuals, law firms, and foundations—and stop siphoning money to it from bar association coffers.
For LACBA to become fiscally responsible, leadership roles must be denied to spendthrifts, and to those who think that voluntary members can be regimented and bullied.
Kiesel will be out of office as president in four months, but will remain a member of the Executive Committee for a year, as past president. President-Elect Margaret Stevens will automatically ascend to the presidency, and she will appoint up to three assistant vice presidents, subject to approval by the trustees.
However, the general membership is not without some power to control who governs the association. The Nominating Committee will, it is assumed, nominate Senior Vice President (and Treasurer) Michael K. Lindsey to be 2016-17 president-elect; Vice President David K. Reinert to be senior vice president; and one of the three assistant vice presidents to become vice president. The Nominating Committee’s nod does not assure election. Any person who has ever served two years on the Board of Trustees may run for any of these offices by accumulating 100 names on a petition. And any member of the association may seek a two-year term on the Board of Trustees by the same means.
We hope to see independent candidates vying for these offices.
The deadline for submitting petitions is April 30.
Veteran attorney Robert L. Kern, a past president of the Eastern Bar Association, commented on the listservs of the Senior Lawyers, Trust and Estates, and Small Firms sections:
The refusal of the LACBA to provide credit for a free seminar is simply without any reasonable justification, as is the refusal of the LACBA to permit the sections to have free “brown bags” at the court. As I understand the situation, if the LACBA is to provide MCLE credit—even for an event which is sponsored by the court, in the courthouse, with the judges as the only speakers (and no food or printed materials other than the attendance forms), they insist upon receiving $50.00 per attorney.
Kern said on the Trust and Estates listserv:
As a result of the [LACBA] “leadership,” programs which were offered at no cost—such as brown bags using free court facilities—have been eliminated and programs where many attorneys work for minimal compensation or volunteer their services without charge—the PVP [Probate Volunteer Program] programs—participants must pay hundreds of dollars to obtain the required instruction.
The proposed changes in the by-laws echo a situation some years ago, whereby the LACBA changed from being an association of lawyers and brought in real estate brokers, paralegals, and all manner of others, in order to enhance the collection of dues. After several meetings where the proposals were defeated, the “leadership” held a virtually secret meeting to pass the changes. Thus today, the LACBA has spawned competitors who mine the forums and offer discounted MCLE programs and others advertise their services touting “membership” in the LACBA.
A revolution seems appropriate.
One long-time LACBA member on Saturday recited—in an e-mail to the MetNews, in response to an inquiry—why she dropped out of the organization, saying:
1. Insufficient return on investment. To pay for membership, section memberships, and then the pricing costs for MCLE programs was just too much. Program costs are ridiculously high, especially for solos, small firms, etc., who are counting every penny in this economy. (I’m one of those.) I can get my MCLE from a variety of other sources at lower costs. While I have made many friends through LACBA membership, I’ll retain those friendships regardless of membership. Additionally, I don’t use any of the member benefits. For example, my mediator malpractice insurance is through Southern California Mediation Association. (By the way, Beverly Hills Bar Association has changed how it charges for membership and section meetings and it has a variety of payment plans. I don’t think LACBA has done either. I’m not a member of BHBA; the Westside is another part of the world for me.)
2. Lack of transparency. I am, to use Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham’s phrase, “gobsmacked” at the lack of it. I understand that LACBA has financial difficulties, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to shield those problems from the members, far from it. I remember years ago when BHBA uncovered financial irregularities, and it went public with that. BHBA members rallied to help out. I would like to think that LACBA members would do likewise if told. The phrase “if told” is key. I don’t understand the secrecy or the reason(s) for it. That lack of candor has destroyed for me whatever loyalty I had to the organization. I’m told that the financial problems didn’t happen overnight (no surprise there). It’s analogous to parents telling their kids that they don’t need to know something that directly affects them because the parents made that decision. Where’s the discussion? This affects every LACBA member.
There’s another issue here that might be worth exploring. Are local bar associations even necessary in the 21st century? So many lawyers, including me, belong to networking groups and specialty bars (including geographic ones such as Pasadena) that focus on our fields of interest and are sources for business development. In all my LACBA membership years, I never received a single referral. That’s not why I maintained my membership for so many years, but for many lawyers, the issue is whether the juice is worth the squeeze. It played into my calculus.
A lawyer complained, on a listserv:
Our Appellate section also has excellent classes, accomplished at no charge to LACBA. The Second District venue is free. The Ninth Circuit is another great host. (Not sure if they charge.) All our speakers are free. Inexpensive and frequent appellate classes foster good relations between bench and bar, and motivate attorneys to join LACBA and the section.
I don’t understand why LACBA wants to kill the golden goose. Why should the Second District continue to sponsor us, if our section classes become a money making venture? Why should speakers come speak for free?
A highly prominent attorney said in an e-mail to the MetNews in December, after reading that former President Joseph Mandel was dropping his membership in LACBA:
LACBA may be unraveling. I decided before reading the MetNews article re Mandel to just quietly not send in my renewal. I don’t have the distinction of being the former LACBA President and recipient of the Shattuck-Price award, etc., etc., so I did not make a big deal of “withdrawing” my membership.
Even though my firm pays our LACBA dues, I don’t want the money to go to an organization that is supposedly a volunteer association and funded by its members that is totally lacking in transparency and actively forbids the member representatives from communicating with the members and will not even provide copies of slides presented at what was supposed to be an informative session. [Kiesel met with section leaders, providing barebones financial information which he forbade them to disclose.] Calling that session a “study hall” reveals the arrogance of the leadership and evidences a level of condescension toward the members. Why all the secrecy?
I am just fed up with Kiesel, [Executive Officer Sally] Suchil and the gutless officers who toady to them. I don’t need the County Bar.
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