The California State Bar, under scrutiny for longstanding failures to protect the public against Tom Girardi and other unscrupulous attorneys, this week awarded its executive director a raise of nearly $43,000.
The pay hike brought Leah H. Wilson’s annual salary to $344,000, an amount that dwarfs the salaries of Governor Gavin Newsom ($218,556) and other top officials overseeing larger organizations, including the district attorney. General of the State ($189,841) and the recently appointed Chief Justice of California. ($293,286).
The 14% rise for Wilson was sparked by the hiring this month of another highly paid public agency official, General Counsel Ellin Davtyan, with a salary of $328,000. The terms of Wilson’s contract call for her to earn at least 5% more than her highest-paid colleague, forcing the bar on Monday to raise her salary as chief executive by $42,737.
Agency officials defended the salaries as necessary given inflation and the compensation experienced lawyers like Wilson and Davtyan might demand in the private sector.
“It’s a competitive market for lawyers,” said Ruben Duran, a San Bernardino County attorney who chairs the state bar’s board. He said comparisons to the salaries of the governor and others are unfair. “I don’t want to go so far as to say apples and oranges, but it’s a very specific type of role that we fill.”
Others familiar with government employee pay are unconvinced.
“I’m not buying it,” said Michael Genest, who served as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief financial officer. He said he had known many talented government lawyers who worked long hours for more modest salaries because they believed in the mission and in what Gov. Jerry Brown once called the office’s “psychic income.” public. “These guys were fantastic lawyers, and they were earning regular public service salaries.”
In Sacramento, lawmakers were already questioning agency compensation in general when the new salaries took effect. The bar must go to the Legislative Assembly each year for approval of its annual lawyers’ fee, a measure that largely determines its revenue. On Tuesday, the Assembly approved a membership fee for 2023 of $390 per active attorney.
An analysis produced ahead of the final vote noted Wilson and Davtyan’s compensation as part of a long history of “disproportionately high” pay at the bar.
“These significant pay increases are expected to trickle down to other state bar executives, increasing the already large pay gap between the bar and other state agencies,” the analysis said.
The bar, the largest in the nation, licenses California’s 260,000 attorneys and is supposed to investigate and discipline attorneys who cheat on clients or engage in other types of misconduct. Following Girardi’s dramatic fall amid evidence he embezzled millions of dollars in settlement money, critics blasted the agency for clumsy complaints against him.
After a Times report last year on the culture of civil servants in the bar by the legendary lawyer, the agency conducted its own audit, which revealed “errors made in certain investigations over the many decades of the career of Mr. Girardi going back about 40 years.” A separate audit ordered by lawmakers found systemic shortcomings, with lawyers avoiding public accountability despite lengthy records of misconduct complaints. Currently, a law firm hired by the bar association is investigating whether agency officials helped Girardi escape punishment.
The bar is committed to reform; Duran, the chairman of the board, said Wilson’s role as executive director is critical to those efforts. Wilson started working at the bar in 2015, served as executive director from 2017 to 2020 and served as a paid consultant for the agency until last summer, when she returned to the role of executive director.
Top bar executives in some other states earn less than their Californian counterparts, though their agencies are smaller than the California state bar, which has 610 staff, and the cost of living is often lower than that. San Francisco and Los Angeles, where the agency has offices. In Florida, for example, with about 278 employees, the executive director is paid $220,000 a year. In Texas, the head of the bar with 285 employees earns $315,986.
Davtyan, the new general counsel, previously worked at LA Care, a public health care plan. Duran said his salary of $328,000 was reasonable compared to the demands of other candidates.
“It was less than some people came out the door asking,” he said.
When asked if the salary was appropriate, Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, said: “It’s too early to tell.”
“I have no problem with her earning a living wage; the Advocate General does a great job. But the incentives need to be aligned so that when the bar doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, people don’t get a raise,” he said.
Neither Wilson nor Davtyan are responsible for investigating and sanctioning individual attorneys. That duty falls to lead trial counsel, former federal prosecutor George Cardona, who was hired last year and reports directly to a board committee. He is paid $286,840, according to salary data published on the bar’s website.
Robert Fellmeth, a former bar instructor who is consulting for the agency on reforming its disciplinary system, said he last year offered to work for free, but the bar insisted on paying him. He said he earns $50 an hour, which he donates to the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego, where he is executive director.
He said that without studying salary data, he couldn’t weigh in on executive salaries.
“I will tell you that such high levels absolutely warrant an investigation,” he said.
Los Angeles Times