Experienced Trial Lawyer Becomes State Bar Leader During Challenging Times

Thursday, October 23, 2014 - 15:15

The Editor Interviews Craig Holden, President of the State Bar of California and a partner in the Los Angeles office of Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith LLP, where he chairs the firm’s National Commercial Litigation Practice.

Editor: First, congratulations on becoming the 90th president of the State Bar of California. Describe for our readers your path to becoming president.

Holden: When I started practicing law some 20 years ago, I had mentors who encouraged me to become active in the State Bar, which I did by participating as a speaker in the State Bar’s educational programming and taking on various leadership roles. My leadership roles started by serving on the Executive Committee for the Law Practice Management and Technology Section and I then went on to serve on the Intellectual Property Section Executive Committee. Soon after I formed and chaired the IP Litigation Committee, which was a good opportunity to get involved in cutting-edge IP and complex litigation issues. We took trips to Washington, DC and met with the Registrar of Copyrights, the chief judge of the Federal Circuit and the head of the Patent and Trademark Office, which gave me enormous exposure to policy-making opportunities, and fueled my desire to stay involved in bar leadership.

I was also active in efforts to diversify the profession and leadership of the bar by encouraging bar leadership to engage in more outreach to recruit from specialty and minority bar organizations. This effort resulted in my founding, along with another lawyer, what was then called the State Bar Diversity Coalition, which helped coordinate efforts between various sections, committees, councils and other organizations of the State Bar that were attempting to diversify their membership and encourage members to get involved with the leadership of the State Bar. I also served on the State Bar Diversity Pipeline Task Force, and I went on to chair the State Bar’s Council on Access & Fairness, which is a diversity think tank for the profession. In this role I worked with corporate counsel, law schools, law departments and firms to develop diversity initiatives that could be replicated by other organizations. Friends and colleagues asked me to continue serving, so I went on to serve on the State Bar Board, which was then called the Board of Governors and is now called the Board of Trustees. After serving for a year I was elected vice president and am now the 90th President as of this past September.

Editor: You have a law firm background, and focus your work on commercial and IP litigation. How does your professional work inform your presidency?

Holden: The skill sets you need as a litigation team leader are the same as running the bar. As the chair of my firm’s National Commercial Litigation Practice Group, I manage financial issues, personnel and delegation work, but also set a vision and mission, and a business plan and goals for the group. Those skills coupled with the skills you learn as a litigation and trial lawyer to lay out a clear and focused objective for your client have proved invaluable in managing and running the State Bar, which is a corporation with over 500 employees, an annual budget of $150 million and nearly 250,000 members, and is the largest State Bar regulatory organization in the country.

Editor: The dramatic cuts in funding to California’s courts over recent years have created a near-crisis situation for the state’s citizens. I have read that court closures have resulted in citizens having to travel distances of more than 100 miles to be present in court, and cases are being delayed, even in instances where an individual or family might be in danger. What are some other implications of the cuts in funding to the California courts?

Holden: The impact of court budget cuts has been profound and will continue to affect us in a number of ways if we are not able to stabilize the funding for our courts. Not being able to count on the court system to efficiently address the needs of consumers and the business community leads to an erosion of confidence in the judiciary, and that’s one of the biggest implications from my perspective – the loss of confidence in the judiciary’s ability to dispense justice in an efficient manner. For example, there have been enormous delays in the court system such that motions that would routinely take a few weeks can now take over a year to be heard and resolved, and cases take much longer to get to trial. As a state we certainly don’t want the lack of efficiency in our courtrooms to tip the balance in having businesses consider other jurisdictions that can serve their legal needs more effectively.

At present, the funding of our court system only amounts to one penny of every dollar that is spent under the state’s general fund. That is just not sufficient for a fully functioning court system, and one of the largest in the world.

Under the leadership of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the court system has done a good job of recalibrating to do more with less. The chief justice has launched a blue ribbon commission focused on measures that would bring more efficiency to the courtroom. As with every crisis, there’s an opportunity for change. There’s the potential now for people in rural parts of the state to gain access to the courtroom through electronic or web-based means for routine matters such as traffic court rather than traveling large distances. Our courts no longer provide court reporters – litigants have to find and bring their own – which has implications for those who don’t have resources and can’t get a record of what has occurred in their litigation matter for purposes of any appeal. I’d like to see California explore the use of audio recording for court proceedings as other states have done. You also see more businesses turning to alternative dispute resolution. There are many other efforts underway to address the delays that affect both consumers and businesses, including a better partnership between the bench and the bar to work together during these budget cuts to encourage our legislature and governor to increase funding – since it’s really a discussion about getting their constituents the fully functioning court system that they deserve.

Editor: In February, the State Bar established a Civil Justice Strategies Task Force to analyze the reasons for and potential solutions to the “justice gap” – the gap between the need for civil legal assistance by low-and moderate-income Californians and the resources available to meet that need. How is that project coming along?

Holden: This task force is focused on identifying solutions to the justice gap that you just defined. We are analyzing past initiatives and exploring new ones. The need for relief has never been greater. Many of our citizens have not recovered from the 2008 Great Recession: six million Californians are below the poverty line and two million of them are children, and many of them are unable to get lawyers in life-critical areas. In the family courts, 90 percent of the victims of domestic violence are unrepresented, and up to 90 percent of litigants in family court are without lawyers. This is significant since the legal profession is a service profession, and if you see so many going unserved, you have to revisit what is broken within the model.

The traditional means to address this has been to ask lawyers to contribute more time in pro bono hours, or to contribute more money for funding of legal services, but it is clear that the gap has grown over the years and that this method has been insufficient. The goal of the Civil Justice Strategies Task Force is to look at innovative solutions. For example, we could offer a limited license to practice law, which was implemented in Washington State to provide low-income consumers with basic legal services – mostly document preparation – in areas where these communities are grossly underserved and cannot afford lawyers. We’re considering solutions like the Incubator Program, a new law firm model where law students and young lawyers can start their careers serving the needs of low-income clients while still having a profitable law firm. Many of these ideas are in the development or discussion stage. There should be a Task Force report out this month that will come to the State Bar Board and likely go out for public comment so that we engage with both the public and the legal community about solutions that may help close the gap.

Editor: Young Lawyers are reluctant to work with the poor and underserved because they need higher-paying jobs in order to pay off their student loan debt. Is this something the Task Force has been looking at?

Holden: Part of the work of the CJS Task Force is to focus on this issue. You hear from young lawyers all the time that they are bypassing public service work, government work or other service sectors that need young lawyers. The cost of law school has gone up astronomically, and the effect is that students are coming out of law school with debt equivalent to a mortgage, but there is a lack of employment opportunity. More young lawyers are starting their own firms directly out of law school but lack training and experience, and that can result in lawyers going beyond their skill set, presenting a potential harm to the public. Further, with the need to service a large debt, many of these young lawyers are unable to take on public interest or pro bono work. There have been some creative solutions discussed in the CJS taskforce and some law schools have developed creative tuition models, and we will continue to explore what can be done working with various stakeholders, including the schools, government and financial institutions. 

Editor: Are there any pro bono causes that you find personally rewarding or that are particularly effective?

Holden: I am proud of the fact that our state has so many public interest organizations that do terrific work. What comes to mind are organizations like Public Counsel, the largest public interest law firm in the nation, under the leadership of my colleague Hernan D. Vera. Public Counsel serves as a clearinghouse that helps underserved communities find lawyers who will serve their important legal needs on a volunteer basis. This work has ranged from helping the poor with representation in child adoptions to helping the victims of real estate fraud. I think the model that Public Counsel has developed, in partnership with major corporations and law firms, is an effective one that gives young lawyers experience while doing good for those in need. I personally found it rewarding to work on several Public Counsel cases where I was able to help victims of real estate fraud recover title to their homes after it had been transferred through fraud. 

Editor: Would you like to mention any other items you’ll be pursuing this year?

Holden: In addition to the foregoing, I’ll focus on getting mentors for young lawyers. We have many young lawyers entering the profession as sole practitioners without the benefit of a traditional mentor. I’d like to canvass the best practices that are being used across the nation to bring mentoring to young lawyers and identify the ones that are sustainable and can be replicated. I’ll also be supporting diversity pipeline initiatives. I was involved in the creation of two pipeline initiatives that I’ll be promoting this year. One is the Law Partnership Academy, which is a partnership between high schools and the Department of Education where we run law-themed academies in high schools. We want to expose kids to critical thinking skills associated with the law and an increased knowledge of civics they’ll need in order to matriculate into college and law school. The other is the Community College Pathway to Law School program, which has received national attention. This is an effort to take advantage of the diversity within the community colleges and partner with four-year universities and law schools. It’s also referred to as the 2+2+3 program – reflecting the steps through community college through law school. In sum, it’s a partnership with specific community colleges, four-year universities and law school. I will continue to support programs like these that increase diversity in the profession.


Please email the interviewee at barcomm@calbar.ca.gov with questions about this interview.