Thursday, July 5, 2001
Independent Report Says No Institutional Bias Exists in State Bar Discipline
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Sole practitioners are not disproportionately investigated, prosecuted or disciplined by the State Bar of California, according to a state-mandated report by an independent consulting firm.
The investigation, conducted by Hilton Farnkopf & Hobson and made public Monday, determined that while there are more investigations conducted of solo attorneys than attorneys in larger law firms, the discrepancy was proportionate to the number of complaints the State Bar received about sole practitioners.
The statistics used in the study were compiled between April 1, 2000 and March 31, 2001.
State Bar Executive Director Judy Johnson noted that the State Bar’s discipline system responds to complaints and that the State Bar receives more complaints about solo and small firm practitioners (2-10 lawyers) than any other attorneys in the system.
“In this day and age, we realize that sole practitioners are operating under tremendous stress in a competitive profession and economy,” Johnson said.
A number of factors contribute to the high number of complaints directed at sole and small firm attorneys, Special Assistant to the Executive Director Fran Bassios said.
“It’s a combination of things,” Bassios said. “It’s the nature of the practice, lack of support and lack of education. Compared to larger firms, they deal with a lot more money and have more client contact.”
“Each client expects to be treated as if they are the only client,” Bassios said. “In a small firm, that’s just not possible. They just don’t have the support.”
The State Bar’s most recent figures on sole practitioners estimated 56 percent of California’s lawyers in 1994 were either sole practitioners or worked in a small firm.
Since complaint investigators have no information about the size or type of an attorney’s practice when a complaint is lodged, the State Bar shows no institutional bias in investigating small practitioners, Johnson said.
The report also supported long-held contentions by State Bar staff and lawyers’ defense counsel that sole and small firm attorneys find themselves overworked that they miss deadlines or fail to communicate with clients.
Sole and small firm attorneys were found by the investigation to sometimes experience money worries and violate ethical rules by borrowing from their clients’ trust fund accounts.
The report also revealed that when compared to sole and small firm lawyers frequently do not cooperate with State Bar investigations of alleged misconducts or have the resources to obtain a defense attorney and when they do cooperate they often do not have the documentation to defend themselves against allegations.
Noting the higher number of complaints lodged against sole and small practitioners, Johnson said her organization is dedicated to helping small practitioners avoid complaints and investigations.
“The bar is committed to providing support to those attorneys who don’t have ample resources that lawyers in larger firms have at their fingertips,” Johnson said. “We will continue to be responsive to public complaints, but at the same time will continue to provide educational resources and assistance to help solos in their practice.”
Johnson said the State Bar provides ongoing assistance for sole and small firm practitioners.
Available resources include an Ethics Hotline (1-800-238-4427), an ethics videotape on lawyer-client relationships and low-cost continuing education courses on the State Bar web site and in its monthly newspaper.
The State Bar also publishes a handbook on client trust accounting and offers a confidential Lawyers Personal Assistance Program to attorneys with chemical dependency problems or emotional distress.
Johnson said the State Bar is also planning to set up a one-stop member call-in center to help members obtain information and assistance quickly and initiate a practical skills training for all attorneys with less than four years of practice.
The discipline study was required by a bill passed by the California legislature in 1999 which dealt with the subject of attorney discipline in the state.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company