California Lawyers Association

A Historic Opportunity: Building a Bar Association

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October 2019

By Heather L. Rosing and Jim Hill

image of Jim Hill and Heather Rosing

It is bittersweet to be writing our last CLA eNews column, as the inaugural President and Chair of the Board. Our terms end a few days after the upcoming CLA Annual Meeting in Monterey (we hope you’ll join us!). It has been our true pleasure and honor to serve. And what a ride it has been! So please allow us a moment to reminisce, as well as to congratulate and welcome the new CLA leaders — President Emilio Varanini, Board Chair Chip Wilkins, Vice President Jeremy Evans, Vice Chair of the Board Betty Williams, Secretary Sarah Rief, and Treasurer Ryan Baron. The organization continues to be in great hands.

The discussion about de-unifying the State Bar had been going on for many years. Most California attorneys continued to be under the impression that the State Bar of California was a membership organization representing its best interests, as opposed to a governmental agency dedicated to public protection under the purview of the Supreme Court. After a series of scandals and critical audits, the Legislature imposed open meeting rules on the State Bar, which included the Sections that had been successfully sponsoring CLE, conferences, and publications under the umbrella of the State Bar for 40 years. This made it very difficult for them to operate.

Legal action based on antitrust principles was being taken across the country to challenge the concept of unified and mandatory bar associations. Under the leadership of State Bar President Jim Fox, the State Bar Board of Trustees debated whether a separation of the regulatory functions and the professional association functions would best serve the public protection mission. Various Sections and other interested groups were actively advocating in Sacramento for their respective positions on the issue. We were both among those who felt that it was time for California to finally have a true Bar Association that would serve as a voice for all attorneys. It was a time of great debate and strong opinions. Award-winning journalist Lyle Moran nicely summarized the history in his article written for the ABA Journal, “California Split: 1 year after the nation’s largest bar became 2 entities, observers see positive change.” 

It all came to a head when then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 36 on October 2, 2017. The new law mandated that the Sections and the California Young Lawyers Association become an independent nonprofit entity. Deunification was now the law, and everyone scrambled to figure out how to best make it happen by January 1, 2018. The Council of Sections worked with the State Bar to set up a new 501(c)(6) corporation to house our new association. There were more debates over the name of the new entity, the mission statement, the bylaws, intellectual property, and the employees. On January 1, the California Lawyers Association launched, with the truly fabulous interim Executive Director Pam Wilson and Director of Operations Tricia Horan setting us up in rented space at the State Bar building in San Francisco. While CLA and CYLA had collectively over 100,000 members, the new organization had no real infrastructure. While we faced daunting challenges, we dived in to build our new bar association with unbridled enthusiasm and excitement, with hundreds of core Section volunteers at our side.

In January 18, 2018, the newly vested CLA Board held officer elections in San Francisco. While neither of us originally aspired to leadership positions, the opportunity to take the help to guide the California Lawyers Association through its launch was too tempting to pass up. We jumped right into the positions that afternoon, and issued our first press release as we blasted off along with our fellow new CLA officers, board members and other leaders.

What happened next can only be described as a whirlwind – a crazy but also supremely fun whirlwind. We were severely understaffed, and our first priority was to ensure that our 16 specialty CLA Sections continued to have the support for their historically successful activities. We set up a Marketing & Communications Committee to help get the word out about who we were (and how we were different than the State Bar). We hired a technology company, a web design company, lawyers for general advice, and more. We set up a special task force called ORPS (don’t ask) to explore online research tools to offer our members (we ended up with FastCase— check it out!).

Anxious to continue on with the 80-plus year tradition started by the State Bar, we also formed an Annual Meeting Committee to plan our inaugural all-membership gathering in San Diego for September. We also quickly set up meetings with our stakeholders and anticipated partners across the state, including the Legislature, the Supreme Court, the Judicial Council, the California Judges Association, the Bench Bar Coalition, the Conference of Delegates of California Bar Associations, the Access Commission, the Council on Access and Fairness, California ChangeLawyers, the law libraries, and more. Our goal was to figure out how to most effectively carry out our mission of promoting excellence, diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and fairness in the administration of justice and the rule of law.

Our Board voted to move our headquarters to the seat of California’s government in Sacramento, and we began our search for a permanent Executive Director. We ultimately hired the wonderful Ona Dosumnu from the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. Ona moved cross country to lead us and to join her executive staff: Director of Governmental Affairs Saul Bercovitch, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives Ellen Miller, Associate Executive Director Tricia Horan; and Director of Marketing and Membership Tej Baath. 

So much was going on. We got our official website up and running and we whipped our online catalog into shape. We developed the CLA eNews as a means of getting the word out to our membership about all of our activities. As we continued to dialogue with the State Bar (a great partner), we ended up taking over many of the Bar Association-type functions, including the Solo and Small Firm Summit, the annual awards, and the Office of Bar Relations, designed to bring together bar associations across the state to collaborate and create a collective voice. We set up an Access to Justice Committee and a Diversity Equity, and Inclusion committee, both designed to bring the power of our substantial membership to bear in these critical causes. At the request of the Chief Justice, we became a partner in the Power of Democracy Civic Outreach Initiative, designed to educate K-12 students on the workings of government and independence of the judiciary.

Recognizing the need for a philanthropic body, we set up a 501(c)(3) foundation to complement our work and mission within the 501(c)(6) association. To strengthen our advocacy voice for the profession, we established an official Office of Governmental Affairs, which took dozens of thoughtful positions in Sacramento and with this State Bar on behalf of our membership and California lawyers generally. Most recently, we responded to the State Bar’s request for public comment on the preliminary report of the Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services. We established a partnership with Change Lawyers and the Access Commission that will allow us to offer substantial member benefits, while at the same time directing funds to access and diversity issues. The list goes on.

And, critically, the nation has been watching us. We receive regular calls from other bar associations and regulatory agencies across the country, inquiring about how our great experiment has worked out. Are our membership numbers up? (They are!) Do we find that we can do more for our members now that we are separated from the regulatory agency? (We do!) Have we been able to get the word out about our offerings? (Working on doing just that every day!) Are we having fun? (We sure are!) Based on our experience, we expect to see other states following our lead.

It has been such a joy to see what was just a sparkle in our eyes, and those of others supporting us, five years ago law explode into a robust California Lawyers Association that is providing substantial benefits and support to California attorneys. The profession finally has a voice. We have a platform for expanding the good work that lawyers do. We are actively convening stakeholders across the state on topics of common interest. Though less than two years old, CLA has been a huge success, thanks to our members and partners.

A final note, we thank the organization and all of you for the opportunity to serve. It has been an honor and a genuine pleasure. Please consider getting involved as a leader yourself – you won’t regret it!

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