In theory, the state requires licenses for those who practice dozens of professions and occupations to protect the public.
After all, we don’t want just anyone doing surgery, designing office buildings or bridges, or even teaching young children. The imposition of training standards, followed by proficiency testing, assures the public that those providing services are at least minimally qualified to do so.
There is a darker side to California’s licensing system, however. It gives incumbents monopolies over specific services defined by the legislator.
Therefore, who is legally authorized to provide which service is ultimately as much a political question as a question of professional competence. No session of the Legislative Assembly is complete without at least one “driving range” battle.
Most often, conflicts arise in the medical field. In the past, they have pitted podiatrists against orthopedic surgeons over the legal right to operate on the ankle; psychologists versus psychiatrists on the right to prescribe drugs; oral surgeons versus plastic surgeons over facial surgery, and opticians versus optometrists over eye care.
Some practice field battles have also been semi-comedy episodes, like vets battling dog groomers over who has the legal right to brush canines and doctors battling colon clinics over which can inject cleansing fluids into the digestive tract.
However, scope of practice disputes are not limited to medical issues and a doozy, involving the practice of law, faces the legislature in the last month of its 2022 session.
A few years ago, the legislature issued a long-awaited redefinition of the state bar, the agency that licenses attorneys. For decades, it acted not just as a regulatory body but, essentially, as a political lobby for the legal profession. The legislature abolished the latter function and directed the state bar to become more diligent in protecting the public interest in obtaining competent and affordable legal advice.
As a result, a more consumer-oriented state bar explored alternative and less expensive ways of providing legal services. But it has bothered legal licensees, especially California consumer attorneys, the lobby of personal injury lawsuit attorneys.
She and other lawyers persuaded Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Santa Cruz Democrat who chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee, to insert certain language into the annual bill reauthorizing state bar dues which, in essence, prohibits the state bar from studying legal services that are not limited to licensed attorneys.
Stone and other lawyers say they just want the state bar to focus on cracking down on bad lawyers. However, opponents of the bill, currently pending in the Senate, say the current system often prevents ordinary citizens from getting the legal advice they need.
Opponents have state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauve on their side. During presentation last month at the American Association of Law Libraries, the soon-to-retire chief justice blamed the Legislature for trying to strangle alternative legal services.
Noting that the Supreme Court had authorized state bar studies and citing programs in other states, Cantil-Sakauve said, “But the legislator now comes, at least written into law, from the inability to proceed to that. And this bill has been lobbied by groups of lawyers in California, who have gone to the legislature and want it slowed down because of their concern.
The state bar is simply investigating potential alternatives. Any changes must be approved by the Legislative Assembly. So why should lawmakers stop the studies now?
The obvious answer is that lawyers don’t want any competition, although it’s also obvious that expanding access to routine legal services would fill a void.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending most of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at the age of 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more Walters chronicles, go to calmmatters.org/comment.