As The State Bar of Texas begins preparation for its Sunset Review - It does so with attorneys divided. A 2011 survey indicated a 47-45% preference for a voluntary, rather than our current mandatory, bar.
In past Sunset Reviews the bar has faced serious opposition led by legislators Lloyd Doggett and Galveston’s Babe Schwartz.
The state bar with 93,000 attorneys, 32 of whom practice in Upshur County, is both the attorney regulatory agency, as well our trade association. Conflicts arise when the same group that lawyers band with for support, is also the authority that suspends licenses.
On one hand the bar, more than any other agency of government, volunteers its time to help the public. ”Lawyers for Veterans”, aid for fire-ravaged Bastrop and a host of free clinics statewide deliver vital legal resources to those in need. The Bar’s Texas Young Lawyers is at the forefront, assisting with mental health, senior and family issues. Its free publications guide the public over a wide range of law.
The other hand, belonging to the small group of attorneys who run the bar, often slaps its own members. When politicians attack attorneys, the bar, instead of defending us, burdens us with more rules, costs and obligations. Appeasement doesn’t work.
People will never like lawyers. When a parent loses custody of a child its easier to blame the lawyer than discussing violence, substance or neglect issues. Criminals blame the police, the victim and of course, the attorney… no matter how many times they’ve been convicted. Ill-informed members of the public castigate attorneys for decisions made by jurors who were actually present and heard the entire case.
The bar’s executive committee’s desires are routinely rubber-stamped by subcommittees where the major precepts of the Open Meetings Act are discarded. When in October 2011 the bar establishment disapproved a measure to reduce the cost of its under-utilized online library, the agenda only included its side of the argument.
This year the bar was to redistrict. It hadn’t since the 1980’s and due to population shifts the Amarillo Bar District contained only 808 attorneys while some other districts had well over 4000 attorneys. A more equitable plan suffered when it failed to conform to the Bar’s long standing, unpublished “gentlemen’s agreements” which among other oddities awards elections to the presidents of certain local bar associations. After Bar Counsel claimed the Bar was exempt from the Voting Right’s Act of 1965, the committee emitted a palpable sigh of relief, and redistricting was buried.
The bar maintains power by appointing many directors through its Nominations Committee, some of whom were never elected themselves. They anoint two bar presidential candidates each year. When in 1986, attorney Tom Sharpe obtained 175 signatures to run independently and almost won, an incensed bar had the legislature raise the petition requirement to 5% of all Texas Attorneys (Sec. 81.019 State Bar Act), including the 8000 practicing in other jurisdictions. Although no one has ever succeeded in getting the approximately 5000 signatures, in May 2012 A bar director attempting such was removed from a bar event. Bar counsel claimed “There is no freedom of speech in a private hotel”. The bar later relented after letters and unfavorable publicity.
In financial matters, the State Bar puts its best foot forward with annual surpluses, at no cost to the taxpayers. Nevertheless attorneys claim they are kicked with the other foot, citing expensive mandatory continuing education, advertising fees, and dues, although the latter has not been increased in 20 years.
Recently there have been signs of discontent. A 2011 condescending Rules Referendum received only 10% support. Turnout in bar presidential elections has been less than 20%. In 2012 four independent bar director candidates were elected and more will run in 2013.
The State bar’s exemplary voluntary service to the citizens of Texas certainly merits Sunset renewal, however it must be made more democratic and transparent. The bar defends anti-democratic actions by saying “Average attorneys can’t make these decisions” but even average attorneys have a graduate degree. Good deeds should be recognized, but so should the spirit of our constitution and statutes.
Rockport Attorney Steve Fischer (firstname.lastname@example.org), is an elected State Bar Director and Texas Bar Journal Editorial Board Member who has practiced in El Paso, Midland-Odessa, Denton, Huntsville and was Willacy County District Attorney. He has served as a member or advisor to eight State Bar Committees and has graduate degrees in law, public administration and criminal justice.