Regulation and Discipline
What We Do
Attorney discipline and regulation are at the core of the State Bar’s public protection mission. The agency investigates and prosecutes complaints against attorneys and works with law enforcement to stop those who falsely hold themselves out as attorneys. The State Bar also distributes restitution-type funds to victims who have incurred a financial loss as a result of attorney theft or dishonest conduct.
The State Bar’s critical public protection work in this area continued in 2020 despite the pandemic:
- In March 2020, State Bar staff, like others statewide, needed to make the almost-instantaneous transition to working from home. The implementation in recent years of a new attorney discipline case management system, Odyssey, enabled most work in the Office of Chief Trial Counsel to continue remotely without interruption or delay.
- The State Bar Court had to suspend court proceedings temporarily, but quickly adapted, ultimately conducting more than 1,300 remote events in 2020.
- The Lawyer Assistance Program, which supports attorneys who have mental health or substance use issues, quickly shifted its services to remote operation and, with awareness of the mental health impacts of the pandemic and related stressors, ramped up outreach via social media and email. Interest in LAP’s individual and career counseling services nearly doubled.
The State Bar Discipline System Includes
Total cases opened
Cases include complaints against attorneys or those engaging in the unauthorized practice of law that come from many sources, including clients, judicial officers, insurance companies, and other attorneys. Cases also include, among other things, matters in which an attorney was criminally convicted, attorney self-reports about malpractice actions, judgments for fraud or misrepresentation, the imposition of sanctions by a judge, discipline by any professional or occupational licensing agency inside or outside California, and actions initiated by the Office of Chief Trial Counsel.
placed on probation
Forms of discipline that are typically less permanent than disbarment. Most require the attorney to comply with a variety of conditions before being allowed to return to practice.
Discipline that revokes a license to practice in California.
Attorneys in court-ordered Lawyer Assistance Program
Some attorneys whose misconduct stems from a substance use or mental health issue receive recovery support through this attorney-funded program.
All attorneys contribute to a fund that reimburses lost money or property due to theft or dishonest conduct by a California lawyer.
A one-time mandatory increase doubled the funds available for distribution in 2020, leading to a record distribution.
Key Metrics – How Well We Do It
The State Bar collects detailed data on the attorney discipline system: its workload, operations, initiatives, and performance in fulfilling its statutory obligation to protect the public from attorney misconduct. Regular metrics reporting is used to manage this critical State Bar function as well as to facilitate external accountability.
Taking action to ensure that the discipline system is effective and fair
A 2019 study undertaken proactively by the State Bar found a number of statistically significant factors associated with race and ethnicity that contribute to disparities in the discipline system, particularly when comparing disbarments and probations between Black and white male attorneys. The study found that whether an attorney has representation during the discipline process and the number of prior complaints against the attorney are both correlated with race and ethnicity and contribute to disproportionate discipline.
In 2020, the State Bar undertook several reforms to address those findings, such as archiving nearly 400,000 older complaints that had been closed with no action, so that they cannot implicitly influence staff determinations of the merit of a new complaint. The Board of Trustees also established a new commission to perform a comprehensive evaluation of the discipline system and recommend ways to continue improving its efficacy, fairness, and equity. The new Ad Hoc Commission on the Discipline System held its first meeting in April 2021.
Meanwhile, procedural fairness surveys, completed by both complainants and attorneys investigated for misconduct, enable the State Bar to monitor the extent to which everyone experiences a fair process, even if they do not agree with the result.
Fighting immigration fraud
In 2020, OCTC launched a pilot team assigned primarily to handle cases involving the practice of immigration law. Immigration law is highly nuanced, so having attorneys with specialized expertise in this area improves efficiency. Two attorneys in Los Angeles formed the pilot team and are now assigned cases in which the alleged misconduct was in the context of an immigration case or where the misconduct implicates the immigration status of a client.
Exploring ways to shift to more proactive, preventive approaches to attorney discipline
The attorney discipline system has always been complaint-based: with limited exceptions, investigations are prompted by consumer complaints. Could preventive approaches provide effective ways to stem potential misconduct? Every three years, the State Bar Board of Trustees is required by law to appoint a Governance in the Public Interest Task Force to recommend ways to enhance public protection, particularly in the licensing, regulation, and discipline of attorneys. These recommendations go to the Supreme Court, the governor, and the Legislature. The 2020 task force report focused on proactive approaches that show potential for preventing attorneys from committing ethical lapses that would trigger discipline.
Along those lines, the State Bar also began work on an online, interactive self-assessment tool for attorneys on ethical issues. The first module will enable attorneys to assess whether their practices in handling client trust accounts have any weaknesses that are red flags for later discipline.