When lawyers fail to properly and ethically serve their clients, the State Bar of California must be the backstop to protect the public.
But when the State Bar fails in that role, the results can be disastrous. The State Bar did indeed fail – and badly – in policing one of its most prominent licensees, Thomas Girardi.
Girardi was disbarred in 2022 on multiple charges of misappropriating millions of dollars. Last November, the State Bar unveiled a lengthy history of complaints against Girardi – more than 200 cases spanning four decades prior to his disbarment. More than half of those complaints involved violations concerning client funds. The State Bar failed to act on those complaints for decades.
The decision to publicly disclose this history of past lapses to the greatest extent allowed by law is the work of a reconstituted Board of Trustees and a new State Bar leadership team. We recognize that the handling of the Girardi matters has revealed serious past failures in the State Bar’s attorney discipline system, contributing to a lack of confidence in the agency’s ability to carry out its core responsibility of protecting the public. As current representatives of the Board and Leadership Team, we apologize for those past failures and commit to taking steps to address them. We have already implemented or have underway many reform measures. We know we need to do still more.
We are speaking openly about the State Bar’s mistakes to underscore our deep commitment to being both transparent and accountable to our primary mission: protecting the public from unscrupulous attorneys.
Earlier this week, the State Bar released the most detailed of its efforts to get to the bottom of what went wrong in the handling of the Girardi matters – the report prepared by an outside attorney, Aaron May, after conducting an investigation ordered by the Board.
This report concluded that Girardi evaded discipline in part because of relationships or influence with past members of the State Bar’s leadership and staff. The report, which has been redacted to comply with legal requirements, confirmed instances of former State Bar staff exercising poor judgment, mishandling conflicts of interest, and otherwise behaving unethically.
None of the staff whose actions were called out in the May report remain with the State Bar. But the lapses point to unfinished work in our efforts to reform the agency.
Those reforms began in earnest almost a decade ago, after a leadership crisis that put in motion the most significant structural reform in 90 years. In 2018, the State Bar was recreated as a strictly regulatory agency, while its former role as a professional association went to a separate entity, the California Lawyers Association. The change sharpened the State Bar’s focus on its core mission: to protect the public by overseeing the licensing, regulation and disciplining of attorneys, by advancing the ethical practice of law, and by promoting greater access to, and inclusion in, the legal system for all people – not just the wealthy.
In the years since, more recently drawing on lessons learned from the mishandling of the Girardi matters, the State Bar has taken numerous steps in furtherance of its mission. The types of improper relationships highlighted in the May report that Girardi used to evade discipline do not – and could not – exist at the State Bar today. Our revamped structure has led to far greater oversight and accountability in managing the discipline system. Current leadership is committed to transparency and ongoing reform.
These reforms include:
Revising and toughening conflict-of-interest rules to ensure that the State Bar acts with impartiality on all disciplinary complaints. Also, complaints can no longer be closed even if withdrawn by the complaining party; the State Bar will continue to investigate when we see a need.
Implementing new requirements for attorneys to report information about client trust accounts annually, to improve lawyer accountability and deter misconduct.
Reducing the factors that contribute to economic or racial disparities within the State Bar’s disciplinary system. Those measures followed a first-of-its kind study in 2019 that identified those disparities and recommended ways to eliminate them. The State Bar is committed to pursuing attorneys who engage in misconduct, regardless of their stature, the size of the firm at which they practice, or the difficulties posed by the investigation.
Launching a Public Trust Liaison office, whose role is to see to it that members of the public can meaningfully voice their complaints about State Bar action or inaction and have their concerns addressed.
Revising policies and practices to ensure that licensees with multiple complaints are identified and their complaint history examined for any patterns of misconduct that warrant increased scrutiny.
Importantly, the State Bar is using the May report to strengthen oversight, accountability, and the effectiveness of the disciplinary system. We are committed to ensuring that, going forward, the agency sets the highest professional and ethical standards and serves as a model for the rest of the country.
The work of reforming the State Bar has begun and continues, as it should for any government agency that serves the public. The State Bar today consists of more than 600 dedicated employees who are committed to making sure that what happened with Girardi will not happen again and are working hard every day to protect the public and earn your trust.
For reprint rights or to order a copy of your photo:
Direct dial: 949-702-5390
Send a letter to the editor: