Regulation and Discipline

What We Do

Attorney discipline and regulation in the interests of public protection are at the core of the State Bar’s 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 funds to reimburse victims who have incurred a financial loss as a result of attorney theft or dishonest conduct.

Krysta Eslick shares how the State Bar helped her recoup money lost from attorney misconduct.

The State Bar Discipline System Includes

Graphic shows the elements of the discipline system.

Total cases opened

15,715

Complaints against attorneys or those engaging in the unauthorized practice of law come from many sources, including clients, judicial officers, insurance companies, and other attorneys. Cases may also be opened based on, among other things, notice from courts or prosecutors of an attorney’s criminal conviction; statutorily required attorney self-reporting about malpractice actions, judgments for fraud or misrepresentation, the imposition of sanctions by a judge, and discipline by any professional or occupational licensing agency inside or outside California; and investigations initiated by the Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC).

Attorneys disbarred

85

Discipline that revokes a license to practice law in California.

Attorneys suspended/placed on probation

159

Discipline short of disbarment that typically requires the attorney to comply with a variety of conditions before being allowed to return to practice.

Attorneys in court-ordered Lawyer Assistance Program

47

Some attorneys whose misconduct stems from substance use or a mental health issue receive recovery support through this attorney-funded program.

Victims reimbursed

291

Reimbursements paid

$5.66 million

All attorneys contribute to a fund that reimburses lost money or property due to theft or dishonest conduct by a California lawyer.

Marcela Barrios shares how the State Bar helped her after her attorney was disbarred for dishonest conduct.

Virginia Mendoza Rezai-Hariri shares how the State Bar took action to disbar her attorney for misconduct.

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.

Girardi response: address past harms, prevent future ones

After disciplining former licensee Thomas Girardi, alleged to have bilked clients out of millions of dollars from their client trust accounts over many years, State Bar leadership took decisive action to understand what happened and ensure it does not happen again. A confidential third-party audit of closed Girardi cases was conducted, and the Board of Trustees appointed a special committee to recommend corrective measures. The Board then approved several measures, including creation of a comprehensive new Client Trust Account Protection Program to safeguard clients’ funds. The State Bar is also conducting an investigation of past actions taken by staff to determine whether the agency's handling of past discipline complaints against Girardi was affected by his connections to or influence at the State Bar. By January 2022, the State Bar had completed its disciplinary action against Girardi, with the State Bar Court recommending his disbarment to the California Supreme Court. Furthermore, the State Bar’s Client Security Fund has prioritized reimbursement of Girardi’s many victims. To date, the Fund has paid out nearly $474,000 to 16 former clients of Girardi, with more payments expected. These ongoing efforts will be expanded further well into the future.

New Chief Trial Counsel: George Cardona

After an extensive search, the State Bar Board of Trustees appointed George Cardona as its first permanent Chief Trial Counsel (CTC) in several years. The former federal prosecutor and City of Santa Monica City Attorney joined the State Bar in October. His goals include prioritizing investigative resources to cases that put the public most at risk, developing new case processing standards based in part on this prioritization, and restoring public confidence in the fact that investigative decisions are free from conflicts or outside influence. The appointment requires confirmation by the California Senate, expected in 2022.

Stepping up efforts to assist attorneys

Keeping a commitment in its previous five-year strategic plan, the State Bar Board of Trustees in 2021 authorized a fully articulated preventative education program for lawyers. The plan is seen in the context of larger efforts to shift to greater emphasis on proactive, preventive regulation: it is far more effective to equip the vast majority of attorneys, who want to practice ethically, with the skills to do so, so that they can avoid complaints and later discipline, allowing the discipline system to focus on attorneys who engage in serious misconduct. The five-year program plan includes both self-assessments and interactive e-learning. Topics will include managing client trust accounts, the updated Rules of Professional Conduct, elimination of bias, and more. The offerings will include both voluntary courses that awarded continuing education credits as well as those required for attorneys already in the discipline system.

Attorney Jeffery S. Vallens discusses how the State Bar assisted him after the untimely death of a fellow attorney.

Targeting the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) and those who prey on vulnerable Californians

Immigrants and Californians whose primary languages are other than English are often targeted by unscrupulous individuals who hold themselves out to be attorneys without being licensed to provide legal advice. The State Bar lacks the authority to prosecute this type of misconduct. However, OCTC issues cease and desist letters, which are posted on the State Bar’s website and circulated via social media, and may refer complaints to local law enforcement for possible criminal prosecution. In the most serious cases, OCTC seeks an order from a state court to assume jurisdiction over the unauthorized law practice, which typically involves hundreds of defrauded clients. OCTC seized four such practices in 2021. These included a Lake Balboa man with 22 aliases who impersonated a licensed attorney, had a previous UPL conviction, and regularly targeted Spanish speakers seeking legal advice. In another case, OCTC seized a business based in the city of Orange that deliberately misled hundreds of people, predominantly Spanish speakers seeking help with family law cases, criminal cases, evictions, civil rights, medical negligence, and auto accidents.

Ensuring the discipline system is both effective and fair

In 2021, the State Bar undertook broad efforts to ensure fairness in its discipline system after a 2019 study found higher instances of discipline for Black male attorneys. To address some of the causes of these disparities, the State Bar undertook reforms regarding client trust accounts, consideration of prior complaints, and the need for legal representation in disciplinary proceedings. In addition, building on the numerous initiatives and reforms implemented in recent years by OCTC and the State Bar Court, the State Bar’s Ad Hoc Commission on the Discipline System is performing a comprehensive review of the discipline system with the goal of ensuring it is both fair and effective in protecting the public. The commission held its first meeting in mid-2021 and is expected to produce its final recommendations by mid-2022.