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State Bar Supports Court Closures, Furloughs to Save Money

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

  • Organization: The Daily Journal
  • Source: CALegalAdvocates >

By Amy Yarbrough
Daily Journal Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO - The State Bar Board of Governors welcomed its new president Friday and gave its endorsement to a plan to close courts statewide once a month to save money.

Howard B. Miller, a partner with Girardi & Keese in Los Angeles, was elected State Bar president at the board's meeting Friday.

Reached at his office late that afternoon, colleague Thomas Girardi said Miller will make a fine president, calling him a "go to guy" on every subject.

"This guy knows it all, he really does," Girardi said. "His quiet way about him is also very persuasive."

Miller will be sworn in during the State Bar's annual meeting in San Diego in September.

Prior to electing Miller, who ran unopposed, the board gave its approval to a plan by the Administrative Office of the Courts and Chief Justice Ronald M. George to close all the state's courts one day a month for fiscal year 2009-10. Doing so is expected to save the courts roughly $93 million.

Ron Overholt, chief deputy director of the AOC, presented the emergency resolution to the board, explaining that the judicial branch is facing an "unprecedented" $400 million hole in its budget, taking into account both cuts and unfunded costs.

"It is a proposal none of us ever thought we'd make," Overholt said of the closures, which still have to be approved by the Legislature. "But the severity of the situation is such that we think it is necessary."

In other action, the board decided to tone down a plan to allow the public to more easily search for lawyers on its Web site. Following opposition from local bars and other groups, the board decided to go forward with the "Find a Lawyer" program, but remove a controversial feature that would have allowed users to do a search based on a lawyer's self-designated areas of practice. The board voted 11 to 8 in favor of the amended proposal, after a lengthy discussion and speakers from the public weighing on both sides of the issues.

Find a Lawyer, as was approved, will allow attorneys to post their photos on their online State Bar profiles as well as links to their business Web sites and maps showing their addresses. Right now, users can only search based on a few criteria, such as name, bar number and firm. The new service will allow for searches by location and languages spoken. Although attorneys will be free to post their areas of practice on the Web site, that information won't be searchable to the public.

Local bar associations and other groups have fought the idea of allowing the public to search for attorneys by practice area since the concept was introduced in November.

Opponents were concerned that the service would undermine local bar associations own fee-based lawyer referral programs, and present a potential danger to the public.

Tom Kuhnle, past president of the Santa Clara County Bar Association, told the board that the local bars' biggest concern was safeguarding the public from attorneys who claim to have expertise they actually don't.

Unlike Find a Lawyer, attorneys in the county bar associations' referral programs are vetted for experience and, if the referral service is certified by the State Bar, the lawyers must carry malpractice insurance.

"The State Bar will be either implicitly or explicitly endorsing the lawyer's assertion of being an expert," Kuhnle said.

Not everyone was swayed, however. Jeannine English, one of the non-lawyers who sits on the board, said the service was virtually useless if the public couldn't search for lawyers by specialty. Without it, she said, people will have to go through a long list to find the kind of attorney they are looking for.

"I don't know why we're trying to hide this from the public," English said, at one point making a motion to scrap the entire proposal.

In other action, the board also voted to increase a number of fees for bar admissions, including the bar exam, by 5 percent each year between 2010 and 2012.


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