By Dan Walters
January 8, 2017 – 4:00 PM

The 2016 legislative session ended four-plus months ago with a cross-Capitol stalemate on the future of the State Bar, the agency that oversees the legal profession.

The 2017 session begins with the stalemate still seemingly intact, but with strong indications that the underlying conflict will resolve itself soon.

The Assembly and Senate deadlocked over how strongly the State Bar should be prodded to reform itself by separating its regulatory functions from its other role as a professional trade association.

Critics have alleged, with good reason, that the State Bar’s duty to weed out miscreant attorneys has played second fiddle to its trade association function. It also has been accused of wasting money that should have been spent on reducing a backlog of complaints against attorneys.

The conflict came to a head as legislators from both houses negotiated details of the annual bill authorizing the State Bar to collect its operating funds, called “dues,” from its member attorneys.

The Assembly wanted tougher reform language than the Senate. But while negotiations failed, they sent a strong message to State Bar officials that the status quo must be changed. And it appears that the message was received.

The State Bar is taking preliminary steps toward what is called “deunification” that would separate regulatory and professional functions, with the latter taking the form of either one or more private trade associations, or some kind of new public agency.

One impetus for change has been adoption of new internal State Bar rules that, among other things, would subject the “sections” promoting specialized law fields to state open meeting and records laws, prohibit serving liquor at section meetings and preventing those meetings from occurring at high-cost resorts.

Leaders of the 16 sections didn’t like coming under those rules and asked the State Bar board for permission to begin working on splitting away.

A complicating factor is that State Bar employees are part of state civil service, and the 20 or so workers who deal with the professional specialties want to keep the benefits of that status, and could face layoffs if the professional activities shift to private entities.

However, were the professional activities to shift to a new state agency of some kind, preserving employees’ civil service status, it still would be subject to the more restrictive operating rules, such as open meeting laws, that have spurred the proposed split.

Another factor is that income from the specialty sections’ extra dues and professional meetings outstrips their costs, and if they go away, the State Bar would have a financial hole to fill.

After the Legislature adjourned without passing a dues bill last year, the state Supreme Court authorized the State Bar to continue collecting most of its dues, which reduced the financial impact of the stalemate, although it did not get as much dues-collection authority as it had sought.

With no immediate need for a dues bill, it appears that the Legislature will back off and allow the State Bar to work its way through the issue.

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