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California Bar Association - The State Bar of California

legal public nation profession

The official California bar association is known as the State Bar of California. Headquartered in San Francisco, it is the largest state bar association in the nation with just under 228,000 members, 169,000 of who are active legal practitioners. As stipulated in the 1927 State Bar Act, all lawyers practicing in California must be members of the state bar. The California bar association is a public corporation within California’s judicial system, serving as an administrative branch of the California Supreme Court. Thus all California State Bar members are officers of the court, ensuring that the legal profession remains self-regulated.

History of the State Bar of California

The term “bar” in reference to the legal profession arose in the 18th century: in the English court chamber, judges occupied the bench while spectators sat in the chairs, separated from attorneys, defendants and witnesses by a wooden bar that went around the courtroom.

A bar association is an organization representing attorneys who practice within a given jurisdiction. Like all professional organizations, a bar association is charged with maintaining ethical practice standards – a singularly important role in a profession that deals with right and wrong. Some bar associations that represent subspecialties within the legal profession also act as advocacy groups, supporting political candidates who will advance their agendas, maintaining lobbyists, and sponsoring public education campaigns.

California’s first bar association, started in the early 1900s, was a voluntary organizations its members called the California Bar Association. The advantages of a mandatory set of practice standards was not immediately apparent to all members of California’s legal profession; it was another 25 years before bar membership became mandatory with the passage of the State Bar Act in 1927. California was one of the first states in the nation to unify its bar in this manner.

Functions of the State Bar of California

The State Bar of California’s two chief mandates are to administer justice by enforcing judicial and legislative rules and statutes, and to protect the public from unscrupulous behavior on the part of its members. Additionally, as a professional organization, it offers a number of services to its members. Finally, the State Bar of California participates in strategic planning efforts that will advance its own mission.

• The Administration of Justice

The State Bar of California takes a leadership role in the administration of justice through its affiliation with the court system as officers of the court. Additionally, the State Bar of California takes a proactive stance in informing and educating the public on legal issues through the mass media, printed publications and its website. The State Bar of California works to expand access to legal representation by offering low- and no-cost legal services to Californians of low or moderate income.

• Protection of the Public

o The California Bar Exam: One way the State Bar of California protects the public is by credentialing its members through a bar examination, infamous as one of the toughest bar exams in the nation. The California Bar Exam consists of 18 hours of testing spread over three days. The 17 subject areas in which applicants are examined include federal constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence (both federal and California state rules), real property, torts, wills (California), trusts and civil procedure (both federal and California). California Bar Exam passing rates are the lowest in the nation: in a typical year, only between 35% and 55 % of applicants qualify.

In order to remain active, members of the State Bar of California are required to complete 25 hours of continuing education every three years.

o Professional Responsibility: The State Bar of California maintains competence standards, ethical standards and rules and guidelines for practice that all of its members must abide by. When they do not, disciplinary measures may be initiated – either by consumers with specific complaints about attorneys or by other lawyers.

California is the only state in the nation that does not use the professional standards of conduct developed by the American Bar Association, as well as the only state bar employing professional judges to rule on attorney discipline cases. California’s client confidentiality requirement is the most stringent in the nation. The State Bar of California also maintains a Client Security Fund to reimburse clients who have lost money through lawyer theft.

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