SAN JOSE — What do you call up to 10 percent of lawyers in California?
And that’s no rotten-lawyer joke.
That’s the eye-popping new estimate by the agency that licenses them.
Of California’s 190,000 active attorneys, as many as 19,000 may have unreported criminal activity, from DUIs to more serious offenses, according to the State Bar of California.
For the first time in California, all active lawyers will have to submit to having their fingerprints live-scanned or taken the old-fashioned way rby April 30 of next year under the plan the state Supreme Court is expected to approve in the coming weeks. The prints will be fed into the state Department of Justice’s database, and previous convictions will be reported to the Bar — as well as all future arrests.
“If you have an attorney convicted, let’s say of fraud, you would want to know it,” said Leah T. Wilson, the Bar’s executive director, adding that the proposal evolved as Bar starts to “pay more attention to our public protection mission.”
For years, the Bar had been counting on attorneys to do the ethical thing and self-report convictions. But here’s how that worked out: During a three-year period recently, at least 32 attorneys were convicted of a felony statewide, according to information the Bar obtained from court records.
But only three lawyers came clean with the Bar.
Bar officials are still exploring exactly how much they will be able to tell the public about what they learn. Currently, consumers can look up profiles of licensed lawyers online to learn such information as where lawyers were educated and whether they are in good standing. In the future, the Bar may also post “conviction alerts.”
Even if convictions don’t end up being posted online, lawyers could be disciplined by the Bar, either for failing to report a conviction to the licensing agency, or for the conviction itself, or for both. The Bar will decide on a case-by-case basis.
Not surprisingly, the Bar was flooded with thousands of negative comments from lawyers about the fingerprinting proposal. The estimate of lawyers with possible convictions, announced in a news release issued by the Bar, is based on the percentage of scofflaws the agency that licenses doctors discovered; of course, it could be lower or even higher for lawyers.
“Let’s say a lawyer picks up a DUI decades ago,” said Michael Cardoza, a high-powered defense attorney and former prosecutor based in Walnut Creek. “Does that make them a bad lawyer? No. All you’re doing is embarrassing them.”
The Bar is drawing up a system that will help officials decide how to prioritize conviction cases, with an eye to how much each case impacts the public, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Farmer.
Another East Bay lawyer, Dan O’Malley, said that if Little League coaches have to be fingerprinted, so should lawyers.
“I’m not offended by it,” said O’Malley, a former Superior Court judge. “If you’re a lawyer, you have to hold yourself up to a higher standard.”
Bar officials pointed out that other state regulatory agencies require their members be fingerprinted, including veterinarians, acupuncturists, podiatrists and accountants.
As part of the Bar’s transition from a clubby organization to a watchdog, lawyers who don’t get fingerprinted by Dec. 1, 2019, will be suspended.
Lawyers will pay an average of $82 to cover the cost of the background checks by the state DOJ and the FBI, and for the actual fingerprinting. Those live-scans can be done at local outlets, including UPS stores, but big firms are expected to contract out for it to be done at their offices.
The Bar has long fingerprinted new lawyers as part of a background check before admitting them. But most of the prints over the years were kept on white 3-by-5 cards, the executive director said, and discarded after three years.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said it’s time for attorneys to step up.
“It’ll be good to have a better level of accountability,” he said.
However, Lafayette-based criminal defense attorney Dan Horowitz argues that attorneys could become the next wave of victims whose fingerprints are mistakenly linked to crimes they didn’t commit — just like some of their clients.
“They’re going to get a bunch of false hits,” he said. “The database is not fool-proof.”