What is the purpose of the bar association?

 Edward Poll, The Daily Record Newswire

If the bar association is a voluntary organization, it is clear that the organization must cater to and satisfy the needs of its members. These goals include, among others, the offering of education to improve both the technical and management skills of its members—attorneys.

If the bar association is an integrated or mandatory organization, its goals are not so clear.

In California, only one president in recent memory had the courage to suggest that the bar association has two goals: (1) to protect the public and (2) to protect and educate its members. Some people claimed that this was heresy.

I see nothing contradictory about having two goals; I do not think that they are mutually exclusive. However, over the years, I have ranted that the bar leadership fails its members by focusing so heavily on the protection of the public. That task should be left to a licensing agency. It is appropriate for a licensing agency to protect the public, at the cost of the lawyers.

California is in a unique position. Since 1927, that state’s legislature must adopt a bill that permits and sets the dues that the state bar can collect from its members. Since California has an integrated bar, every lawyer must be a member. Merely by way of refresher, it should be noted that the legislature became more hostile to the state bar at a time when the state bar criticized then-Sen. Pete Wilson for his stand on immigration, a subject of great relevance to the state of California. Then-Gov. Wilson, with a long memory, vetoed the state bar dues in1997, the last year of his office. The legislature did not override this veto. Since that time, the state bar has been less than assertive in its relationship with the legislature.

Furthermore, since the number of lawyers has decreased dramatically in the state legislature, the remaining members were successful in adopting legislation that states quite clearly that the main function of the state bar is to protect the public. This philosophy is embodied in the Business and Professions Code of the state of California.

The specific language states that “protection of the public shall be the highest priority...” of the state bar. It is no wonder that lobbying activities and education activities must be done by volunteer associations and individuals with particular expertise. While the state bar does conduct many educational programs, they are conducted under the guise of enhancing the skills of lawyers in order to be better able to serve the public. Certainly, better-skilled lawyers serve their clients better. However, it seems a stretch to say that this is what the legislature had in mind when it sought to restrict the activities of the organization.

The bar association is an integral part of the effective operation of the justice system. Lawyers are important contributors to the introduction and review of legislation; lawyers help the judiciary in many ways, including via pro bono efforts as judges pro tem; and lawyers provide services where the “rubber hits the ground.” Thus, lawyers must have an independent voice when speaking to the legislature and when interacting with their own bar association. Being an integrated bar association may create more difficulties than benefits. When you read this, be sure to review your own bar association mandates, both local and statewide, and be active, not passive, as a member.


Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a law practice management thought leader and contributor to this publication. His website is at www.lawbiz.com.


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