California high court pushes state bar to police ethics conflicts

A view of the judge's chair in court room 422 of the New York Supreme Court
A view of the judge's chair in court room 422 of the New York Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street February 3, 2012. Picture taken February 3, 2012. REUTERS/Chip East
  • Candidates for leadership posts should disclose potential conflicts when screened
  • The state bar is under pressure to improve attorney oversight following the Thomas Girardi scandal

March 23 (Reuters) - The California Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the State Bar of California to fast-track changes meant to identify potential conflicts of interest among potential bar leaders.

The request comes less than two weeks after the state bar released several reports detailing unethical conduct by former employees regarding Thomas Girardi, a prominent national plaintiffs' lawyer now facing federal charges in California and Illinois for allegedly taking more than $18 million in funds belonging to his firm's clients.

The state bar is tasked with attorney oversight, yet Girardi had been the subject of 205 ethics complaints since 1982 and faced no discipline until he was disbarred in June.

The latest report found that at least nine former state bar employees had connections with or received gifts from Girardi. One former bar investigator received more than $1 million in addition to free private jet flights and tickets to sporting events.

The high-profile Girardi case has put the state bar under a microscope and sent it scrambling to adopt reforms ranging from increasing the number of staff who investigate and prosecute attorney discipline matters to the elimination of elections for board of trustees positions, which are now filled by appointment.

State bar executive director Leah Wilson said in a statement Thursday that the organization welcomes stronger conflict of interest screenings and that similar improvements are already in the works.

"Collectively, these actions will help us improve public trust in the integrity of the state bar," Wilson said.

The California Supreme Court's Wednesday letter asked the state bar to amend rules for reviewing candidates for its board of trustees and its state bar court, which handles attorney discipline matters. The committees responsible for those reviews should collect information about a candidate’s financial and nonfinancial interests that might affect their bar services; require candidates to provide a list of attorneys with whom they would face a conflict of interest while serving the bar; and evaluate the responses for disqualifying information.

The court also directed the state bar to expedite those changes.

The state bar has already convened a reforms committee that is weighing potential changes to the organization’s governance and operations.

Read more:

Tom Girardi gave $1 mln to California bar investigator, report says

Lawyer Tom Girardi drew over 200 ethics complaints, California bar says

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at