Auditor Hammers State Bar for Failing to Crack Down on Repeated Ethical Violations

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The State Bar of California (Photo: Shutterstock.com)

By Robert J. Hansen

Sacramento, CA – The California State Auditor found the State Bar of California (State Bar) failed to effectively deter or prevent some attorneys from repeatedly violating professional standards.

The State Bar is responsible for protecting the public from attorneys who fail to fulfill their professional duties, and it works to meet this obligation by administering a disciplinary system that investigates and prosecutes complaints. 

It administers a disciplinary system that investigates and prosecutes complaints of professional misconduct against the more than 250,000 lawyers licensed in California.

“We found that the State Bar prematurely closed some cases that warranted further investigation and potential discipline,” Michael Tilden, acting California State Auditor said in a report to the Governor and State Legislature.

From January 2010 to November 2021, roughly one‑third of complaints received were investigated. 

Five percent of all complaints resulted in formal discipline of the attorney.

The Auditor reviewed files for one attorney who was the subject of 165 complaints over seven years, many of which the State Bar dismissed outright or closed after sending private letters to the attorney. 

Although the volume of complaints against the attorney has increased over time, the State Bar has imposed no discipline, and the attorney maintains an active license according to the audit. 

About 10 percent of all complaints are dismissed using nonpublic measures such as private letters, which did not deter some attorneys we reviewed from continuing to engage in similar misconduct according to the audit.

Despite lengthy patterns of complaints against them, the State Bar failed to adequately investigate some attorneys.

“In one example, it closed multiple complaints alleging that an attorney failed to pay clients their settlement funds,” Tilden said. “When the State Bar finally examined the attorney’s bank records, it found that the attorney had misappropriated nearly $41,000 from several clients.”

To improve the independence and objectivity of the semiannual review of the State Bar case files, the Legislature should require the State Bar to; regularly change its external reviewer, have its external reviewer present its findings and recommendations, require the State Bar to report periodically to the board on the actions it takes to address the external reviewer’s recommendations.

The Legislature should require an assessment by no later than December 2023 of the State Bar’s compliance with those policies and procedures.

The Audit also recommended that the State Bar should begin monitoring compliance with its new policy for identifying the circumstances in which investigators should continue to investigate even if the complainant withdraws the complaint by April 2023.

“The State Bar should notify the public on its website when other jurisdictions have determined that an attorney who is also licensed in California presents a substantial threat of harm to the public,” the report said.

Coincidentally, a misconduct complaint has been filed with the CA State Bar against Yolo County district attorney Jeff Reisig.

The complaint lays out several examples of misconduct over the last 17 years. 

State Bar investigations and inquiries are, by statute, confidential. 

The complaint becomes public when disciplinary charges are filed against an attorney in State Bar Court. 

By law, any other pending investigations involving the same lawyer must remain confidential at that point.

The Supreme Court of California (Supreme Court) holds the power to admit, disbar, and suspend attorneys who are considered officers of the court. 

Attorneys hold significant responsibility as representatives of and advisers to their clients. 

Clients often seek the services of an attorney during times of crisis when they are in a particularly vulnerable situation. 

To fulfill their role, attorneys are accorded a great degree of trust, as well as certain privileges and responsibilities: they may legally represent their clients, may hold funds on behalf of their clients, and must maintain the confidentiality of the information that their clients provide them.

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About The Author

Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Robert is covering the Yolo County DA's race for the Vanguard.

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