California lawyers will be required to report misconduct by their colleagues starting August 1, in yet another major reform stemming from the Tom Girardi scandal.
The state’s Supreme Court announced the new rule Thursday. It requires attorneys to notify the State Bar if they have “credible evidence that another attorney has committed a criminal offense or engaged in dishonesty, fraud, deceit” or other misconduct that “raises a substantial question about the honesty, trustworthiness of that lawyer”. , or fitness.”
Those not following the rules risk fines of up to three years’ suspension of their legal licenses.
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Versions of the reporting bill are on the books in 49 other states. But for decades, Golden State lawyers have resisted what many call the “snitch rule,” with some arguing that such regulation was unnecessary for members of California’s prestigious bar.
That changed last year after The Times wrote about the state’s outlier status and how it contributed to Girardi’s longstanding corruption. The powerful litigator embezzled millions of dollars in settlement money at least as far back as the 1980s, but many lawyers who knew or should have known that he was stealing from clients did not report him.
A former employee of Girardi’s firm told The Times he knew his boss was looting a burn victim’s settlement. But he said he chose not to notify the State Bar after finding that the state’s professional conduct rules for attorneys did not require him to do so.
The Supervisory Board of the Bar Association started drafting the duty to report last year and submitted it to the Supreme Court for approval this spring. The Supreme Court justices added additional features, such as specifying that lawyers can also inform a judge of misconduct during pending litigation and emphasizing that false reporting to a judge could lead to disciplinary action or criminal penalties.
The chairman of the State Bar’s board of trustees, Ruben Duran, said he was “grateful” to the Supreme Court for “swiftly refining and approving” what the trustees had proposed.
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“Protecting the public is our most important job,” said Duran. The new requirement “will further our mission, assist the State Bar in investigating misconduct and provide California with a similar rule in effect in every other state in the country.”
Senator Tom Umberg (D-Orange), who proposed a similar version of the rule in the legislature, called it “an important step forward for consumer protection.”
“Maintaining the integrity of the legal profession is not a weight that should rest solely on the public, and this action ultimately brings California into the ranks of all the other 49 states,” Umberg said.
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Not all lawyers were enthusiastic.
Glendale attorney James Ham, who represents attorneys accused of misconduct, called the new rule “just classic bureaucratic CYA” that “will not have a significant impact, but looks good.” In his experience, he said, honest attorneys already report misconduct, and those who choose not to alert the State Bar are often prosecuted for far more serious crimes than failure to report.
“I think they create the illusion of quoting, not quoting ‘doing something,'” Ham said. “What you get is a bunch of lawyers who are going to use it as an excuse to file mediocre, low-key complaints against their opponents and cloak themselves in the self-righteous obligations of this rule. .”
Jeremy M. Evans, president of the California Lawyers Assn., was among those expressing concern about the move to mandatory reporting, noting in February that “lawyers are less likely to assist or interact with each other contact for fear of being held liable as a result of not reporting the conduct of another lawyer.”
Evans said in a statement Thursday that his organization will “ensure lawyers are trained on the new standards that will advance the profession.”
There are some exceptions to the rule. If information about misconduct is learned during a substance abuse or mental health treatment program, or in the context of attorney-client privilege, the attorney is under no obligation to alert the State Bar.
The new reporting rule is the most recent reform effort prompted by the demise of Girardi, the Los Angeles plaintiff’s attorney made famous for his work on the toxic lawsuit depicted in the movie “Erin Brockovich.” After his business imploded in 2020, evidence emerged that Girardi had used settlement funds to endorse the lavish lifestyle he shared with his third wife, Erika, a “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” cast member.
The 84-year-old faces federal wire fraud charges in Chicago and Los Angeles in connection with the robbery of millions of dollars from settlement funds. He has pleaded not guilty in both criminal cases.
In the wake of revelations about its mishandling of client funds, cozy ties to State Bar officials, and use of intermediaries to transfer funds, the State Bar has introduced new rules for client trust accounts and tightened conflict of interest rules.
The Mandatory Disclosure Act is one of the most sweeping changes resulting from the Girardi scandal, as it affects nearly every member of the profession, regardless of their specialty.
The need to continue implementing large-scale reforms was one of the motivations for adopting the new rule. Speaking at the State Bar Trustees’ meeting last month, San Francisco-based litigator and trustee Sarah Good noted, “We come from a place where we’re trying to rebuild trust in the State Bar as an institution, and I think this is one of the necessary reforms we need to implement.”
The American Bar Assn. developed the model rule for reporting in 1983, and states began to adopt it in the years that followed. Some, such as Georgia and Washington, merely encouraged lawyers to file reports, but most required it.
In California, committees studied the possibility, but many ordinary lawyers saw it as an unnecessary encroachment on their relationships with clients and each other.
One opponent was then-federal prosecutor George Cardona, who in 2015 voted to reject the rule while serving on a blue-ribbon commission to improve legal ethics. In the aftermath of the Girardi scandal, Cardona was hired by the State Bar as Chief Prosecutor or Chief Prosecutor, with the aim of cleaning up the agency’s battered reputation.
He told The Times last year that he had changed his mind after looking at the damage the wayward lawyer had done to the profession.
“I think eventually passing a rule like this could help that,” he said.