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Vol. 42, No. 5

Newly formed California Lawyers Association excited to step forward

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Chances are, you’ve heard something about the "state bar act" —effective January 1 of this year—that formalized a split in which the State Bar of California retained only its regulatory and public protection functions, ending years of debate over what the state bar's role should be.

You may also have heard about something else that occurred as part of that split: the formation of a new statewide organization called the California Lawyers Association. Bar Leader recently spoke with the first-ever president of the CLA, Heather Linn Rosing, about the new organization and its current focus.

Though the structure of the CLA is new, Rosing pointed out that the 16 sections and the young lawyers’ group (the California Young Lawyers Association) that were moved out of the state bar had been thriving “for decades.” By bringing them together under the CLA umbrella, the new organization began with more than 60,000 members.

When asked about the CLA’s top priorities for the first year, Rosing talked about some nuts and bolts, but she also shared this bold vision: “Our goal is to be one of the preeminent bar associations in the country.”

But can a bar association with such a strong section emphasis inspire members to feel connection and loyalty to the overall organization as well? And how will this new voluntary statewide organization interact with the other voluntary bars in the state?

First things first

This year, the CLA is tackling a host of infrastructure matters—such as hiring its own staff and voting to base itself in Sacramento. (Currently, both its staff and space are via an arrangement with the State Bar of California, operating out of the state bar’s offices in San Francisco.) Beyond that, Rosing said she has a list of 20 things the CLA is “heavily committed to developing” but that these are the current top four:

  1. “Significant events,” such as an annual meeting, which Rosing said the State Bar of California had for many years, drawing 4,000 attendees at its peak. The CLA is planning a two-day annual meeting in September 2018 in San Diego, and hopes to hold its 2019 annual meeting in Monterey. Also in 2019, the CLA plans to hold a solo and small firm summit; because there’s a tie to public protection, Rosing noted, the bar hopes to partner with the State Bar of California on this event.
  2. Diversity, inclusion, and equity in the bar, the profession, and in access to justice. The CLA has a committee focused on these issues, Rosing said, and the fact that she is currently also president of the California Bar Foundation gives her additional knowledge and resources to draw from.
  3. Governmental affairs and advocacy, another focus for which there’s a CLA committee. A group that was a subset of the 16 state bar sections had been proposing and commenting on state legislation, but now, Rosing said, there is a statewide bar organization that is able to be “the voice of the legal community in California” and also to show support for the judiciary.
  4. Pro bono. The CLA wants to partner with legal services organizations throughout the state, serving as a clearinghouse for pro bono opportunities in California.

Collaboration, partnership are important

Rosing, herself a past president of the San Diego County Bar Association, acknowledged that there are many local bar associations throughout the state, with an unusually well-organized statewide group of bar executives—the Executives of California Lawyers’ Associations. She said ECLA has been “totally receptive” to the idea of collaborating with the CLA and, in fact, has invited the new bar organization to its meeting in May. The CLA is forming a bar collaboration committee, she added, and wants to approach other bar associations throughout the state as “equal partners” in advocacy and other areas of shared priority. The CLA also plans to hold a bar leadership conference in 2019, she noted.

Collaboration with the State Bar of California will continue, Rosing said, even after the CLA makes its move to Sacramento. For example, once the state bar hires a new diversity director—to replace Pat Lee, who is retiring—Rosing expects that the CLA’s diversity committee will be in close contact with him or her. Another area of potential collaboration, she said, is in continuing legal education—because the state bar has a vested interest in whether California lawyers are proficient and up to speed. And rather than feeling territorial over its remaining functions, Rosing said, the state bar is actively looking to shift at least one more to the CLA—an awards program that may no longer be the best fit.

Currently, and for the foreseeable future, the only way to join the CLA is by also joining either a section or the CYLA. So, what will encourage members to come together and think of themselves as one bar, rather than affiliating only with their interest groups? Acknowledging and tapping into the “awesome, robust” power of the sections, Rosing said, helps to make a case for a feeling of pride in the association. Also, she said, many section leaders had longed to be united under a statewide organization that had more “flexibility” than the State Bar of California could offer.

“They’re interested and energized [regarding the CLA as a whole],” she believes. “We’re getting a lot of great responses.”

What’s next?

Rosing said there’s a “strong likelihood” that the CLA will form a bar foundation someday, given that the organization has an interest in philanthropy. In the nearer future, expect to see staff and elected leaders of the CLA at meetings of the National Association of Bar Executives and National Conference of Bar Presidents, and possibly at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute. The bar is also talking with the ABA about how to gain a seat in the House of Delegates.

Again, Rosing said, in many ways what happens next is a continuation of what the sections and CYLA have always done. “Now,” she said, “they’ll have a chance to do what they always wanted to do before—and much more.”