California Bar's Sections Could Split Off From State Bar

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 14, 2016 10:57 AM

California's 16 specialty bar sections may be leaving the California Bar Association in the near future. Those specialty groups, which California attorneys may join as part of their membership in the bar, cover everything from antitrust law, to environmental law, to workers' comp. But they've been struggling under new bar rules meant to balance the state bar's role as both a regulator and a trade group, according to Courthouse News Service.

On Monday, the California State Bar's Board of Trustees gave those sections the go ahead to start deunification discussions with the legislature and state Supreme Court.

What Bar Sections Do

The bar's 16 sections are meant to "help their members maintain expertise in their various fields of law, expand their professional contacts, and serve the profession, the public and the legal system," according to the bar's website. Membership is entirely voluntary. Lawyers can enroll online or when they pay their annual dues. Enrollment fees of $95 per section keep the groups self-funded.

In return for membership in a section, lawyers can get access to low cost MCLE courses, regular journals and newsletters, and networking opportunities. The sections also engage in legislative work, commenting on administrative rulemaking and reviewing proposed laws.

Sections Chafe Under New Constraints

So why would they want to split? The sections have struggled with new rules imposed on the state bar and California boards and commissions, which have constrained the sections' work.

According to CNS's Maria Dinzeo:

This year, the State Bar began implementing a series of across-the-board reforms to its operations and how it spends membership dues, including requiring compliance with California's Bagley Keene open meetings law and banning spending on alcohol at events and contracting with resort style meeting venues.

Those changes came after the bar faced strong criticism from legislators and the California State Auditor over its budget and disciplinary system.

"With these types of limitations," Council on Sections officer Mark Ressa told Dinzeo, "it might reduce the effectiveness of what these sections do."

The idea to split was first proposed by the business law section and two members of the bar's board, according to Ressa.

If the sections do spin off, they could become an independent non-profit or a new government body under the Supreme Court and legislature. But, the sections' separation from the bar is not yet a foregone conclusion. After Monday's vote, discussion about a potential split are just beginning.

Editor's Note, December 16, 2016: After publication, FindLaw was contacted by Megan Zavieh, chair of the Solo and Small Firm Section. Almost all sections, Zavieh says, voted to stay with the bar and do not want to leave. Those interested in learning more about the section changes can follow the story firsthand by attending twice-weekly Council of Section calls that are now open to the public.

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