History of the National Organization of Bar Counsel
The National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC) was formed in 1965 to enhance the professionalism and effectiveness of lawyer disciplinary counsel throughout the United States. NOBC membership has grown to include discipline and lawyer ethics counsel from over 75 state, local, and federal lawyer regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada, and Australia. NOBC is represented in the ABA House of Delegates, and NOBC liaisons have been active in the major commissions and workgroups producing national reports, standards and models in the field of legal ethics and attorney regulation.
The Early Years
The NOBC had its genesis in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when lawyer discipline counsel from around the country began meeting with each other at American Bar Association meetings about matters of common concern, such as professional ethics and the unauthorized practice of law.
In August of 1964, four general counsel of state bar associations, Indiana, Illinois, Texas and California, met and decided to establish a vehicle through which bar counsel could regularly meet to share work experiences; exchange briefs, pleadings, and ideas; and facilitate reciprocal discipline. The first informal gathering of what was to become NOBC was a daylong meeting in New Orleans in February of 1965. Thirteen bar associations or disciplinary agencies were represented. J. Cameron Hall of Michigan was elected the first president of the fledgling organization. NOBC past-presidents include bar counsel from throughout the United States, from large and small jurisdictions. The 1968 meeting in Chicago expanded to a day and a half in length.
NOBC formally organized as a non-profit corporation in the District of Columbia on March 11, 1977 and has remained a District of Columbia corporation in good standing ever since. In March of 1988, the Internal Revenue Service issued a determination letter that NOBC is exempt from federal income taxation under section 501(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code. The original corporate purposes of NOBC were and continue to be:
(i) The protection of the public and the courts against unethical conduct; (ii) the protection of attorneys against unfounded complaints; (iii) the exchange of information and views among counsel for national, state and local bars and bar associations; (iv) the exchange of pleadings and briefs filed in disciplinary cases, unauthorized practice of law cases and other litigation involving the organized bar; (v) joint, coordinated action, including lawsuits, when necessary, to promote solutions to nationwide problems relating to the legal profession; (vi) mutual assistance in gathering evidence and testimony at the request of fellow bar counsel; (vii) the exchange of legislative proposals, bills, statutes, court rules or other items of interest to bar counsel; (viii) the encouragement to other bars and bar associations to employ bar counsel where none are employed; and (ix) institutes and seminars to increase the knowledge and efficiency of bar counsel.
NOBC, as an organization, does not have any responsibility for lawyer discipline, which is administered in each jurisdiction by its member agencies.
NOBC is governed by a board of directors comprised of the organizational officers: the President, President-Elect, Treasurer, and Secretary, two directors-at-large, the NOBC delegate to the ABA House of Delegates, and the Immediate Past-President, all of whom are elected by the membership. CLICK HERE to see a list of of past NOBC Presidents.
In about 1977, the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility (ABA Center) began providing a binder of recent lawyer discipline cases. This was the forerunner of the Current Developments program, which has become institutionalized as a centerpiece of NOBC conferences. That program has progressed from a few pages in the conference materials to a lengthy and comprehensive digest of current decisions in lawyer discipline matters. The Board of NOBC decided to make Current Developments available on the NOBC website in searchable digital format benefiting not only discipline counsel throughout the country, but also other regulators, researchers and members of the public.
Well into the 1980’s, the number of bar counsel in attendance at regular meetings could fit around a “U-shaped” table in a hotel conference room to hold conversations about topics of common interest. Today, multi-day meetings take place twice per year in hotel conference facilities, set up classroom style to accommodate as many as 150 attendees from throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world. Conferences are generally held in conjunction with the annual and mid-year meetings of the American Bar Association and have occurred at diverse locations throughout the United States and Canada.
Consistent with the informality of NOBC’s beginnings, in the early years “hospitality” consisted of little more than finding a restaurant where everyone in attendance could eat for a reasonable price. As the organization grew larger, a “hospitality suite” was added that allowed members to meet and greet one another prior to breaking into groups for dinner. NOBC Members consistently report that these informal interactions provide opportunities to forge relationships and exchange information about disciplinary procedures and cases.
National and International Leadership in Lawyer Regulation
NOBC has played, and continues to play, an important role in lawyer regulation, speaking uniquely from the perspective of lawyers who are actively engaged in the day-to-day regulation of the bar through the enforcement of legal ethics rules. Over the years, NOBC Presidents have routinely been interviewed by members of the national media. NOBC representatives were actively engaged in all of the major ABA initiatives and other developments in the field of lawyer regulation, including:
- Wright Committee which examined the 1908 Canons of Professional Ethics which preceded the Code (1964 ABA Special Committee on Evaluation of Ethical Standards) (former bar counsel Fred Franklin (then with the ABA), and John Bonomi (NY)).
- Clark Committee which issued the 1970 report that did so much to bring about dramatically improved state discipline systems (1967 ABA Special Committee on Evaluation of Disciplinary Enforcement) (John Bonomi (NY) and Michael Franck (MI), the reporter was active in NOBC).
- ABA Special Committee on Judicial Standards (1970-1971).
- ABA Special Committee to Secure Adoption of the Code of Professional Responsibility (1970-1972)
- Three NOBC members on the inaugural body of the ABA Standing Committee on Professional Discipline when it was founded in August 1973.
- Also in 1973 the ABA established its Center for Professional Responsibility which NOBC had long championed.
- Kutak Commission which produce the Model Rules (ABA Commission on Evaluation of Professional Standards 1977-1983) (Actually, NOBC appointed its own committee which rewrote the Code and argued against significant portions of Kutak).
- Joint Committee on Professional Sanctions which produced the Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions (adopted by the House of Delegates in 1986).
- McKay Commission. At the 1987 meeting in New Orleans, "a nationwide evaluation of disciplinary systems was the topic of discussion." NOBC President Ron Stovitz appointed a committee to prepare a report. It did, and submitted a recommendation to the ABA. In 1989, the ABA created its Commission on the Evaluation of Disciplinary Enforcement. John Berry, then President of NOBC, and Chuck Kettlewell, a former president, were members.
- Appeared before the California Supreme Court, in November, 1998, through then-President Michael J. Oths, in support of the State Bar of California's ultimately successful Request to the Court for a Special Regulatory Assessment after the legislature adjourned without appropriating funds for attorney discipline.
- In 1998 John Berry, Ginny Ferrara, of the New Mexico Bar and Bill Smith, of the State Bar of Georgia, had the opportunity to represent the NOBC in a face to face meeting with the then Attorney General Janet Reno, in Washington, D.C. The scope of the meeting included a discussion concerning revisions to Rule 4.2 as proposed by the Conference of Chief Justices, including ways that NOBC and OPR could better coordinate efforts.
- “Ethics 2000 Commission” - NOBC members (Bill Smith & John Berry attended almost every meeting, and a committee (Bill Smith, John Berry, Mark Armitage, and Fred Ours) was also formed to submit written comments on several remaining issues on behalf of the enforcement community. These efforts had a favorable impact on the final product, even if not every battle was won.
- MJP - Again, in 2001 and 2002, Bill Smith participated in the hearings of the ABA Commission on Multijurisdictional Practice and helped to forge the “Common Sense Proposal,” a product of a coalition comprised of American Corporate Counsel Association, APRL and NOBC.
- General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) – In 2002, NOBC President Robert Saltzman signed a and letter to the US Trade Representative enclosing a resolution adopted by NOBC and urging effective regulation of foreign lawyers who deliver legal services in the United States. Again, Bill Smith saw the significance of the issue, advocated action by NOBC, and drafted the resolution.
- From 2005 through 2007, NOBC appointees addressed issues related to the graying of the profession in collaboration with members of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (see below). In May 2007, the NOBC-APRL Joint Committee on Aging Lawyers issued its Final Report.
- In December 2009 the NOBC Law School Professionalism Initiative Committee issued its Report calling for reform of legal education as it relates to professionalism and lawyer character formation.
- Collaboration with APRL continued as members of both organizations studied the prospects for preventing unintentional lawyer misconduct by addressing the matter in law school and later years. In August 2010, the Joint NOBC-APRL Committee on Competency issued its Final Report surveying the recent work of various bodies on this issue and calling for greater emphasis on practical skills by the respective organizations and the Conference of Chief Justices.
With membership of lawyer regulators from every state in the union and the District of Columbia, NOBC is unique as a national organization of agencies and lawyers professionally engaged in the enforcement of legal ethics rules. NOBC’s national leadership was further solidified when federal agencies with lawyer regulation responsibilities joined NOBC. Those agencies include: the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility, the Executive Office for Immigration Review’s Office of General Counsel, the Inspector General’s Office of the National Labor Relations Board, the Office of Enrollment and Discipline of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Internal Revenue Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of Homeland Security.
NOBC became international in scope in the late 1980s when the first lawyer regulation entity from outside the United States joined the organization. NOBC’s international membership now includes the Canadian Law Societies of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Upper Canada (Ontario), the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society, and the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner of New South Wales, Australia. NOBC’s on-going initiatives on the international lawyer regulation front include the active participation of its representative. A committee on international cooperation and affairs was established by the NOBC President in 2003, who appointed Bill Smith as chair. NOBC’s work heading into the 21st century on GATS and the globalization continues today.
In 2001, former NOBC president and NOBC’s long-standing delegate to the ABA House of Delegates, John Berry was honored to be selected as the eighth annual recipient of the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Michael Franck Award, honoring “individuals whose career commitments in areas such as legal ethics, disciplinary enforcement and lawyer professionalism demonstrate the best accomplishments of lawyers.”
NOBC recognizes leadership and distinguished service within the organization through its annual President’s Award, inaugurated in 2001. CLICK HERE for a list of award recipients.
ABA Center for Professional Responsibility
NOBC has an important relationship with the American Bar Association’s Center for Professional Responsibility(ABA Center). The ABA has traditionally taken a leadership role in promulgating model standards of conduct for lawyers practicing in the United States. These model standards have progressed from the Canons of Professional Ethics (1908) to the Code of Professional Responsibility (1969) to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (1983) and recent Ethics 2000 amendments to the Model Rules (2002). After the ABA House of Delegates adopts model rules, individual jurisdictions review and ultimately decide the final form the rules will take in their jurisdictions. NOBC has provided critical input to the formulation of these model rules through its representative in the House of Delegates as well as through its interaction with the ABA Center. The ABA Center, in turn, assists individual jurisdictions by providing research materials and technical support.
The ABA Center has also taken the lead with two important lawyer regulation functions. The first is the National Lawyer Regulation Data Bank, which collects information about lawyer discipline for reporting to other jurisdictions so that lawyers admitted in more than one jurisdiction can be reciprocally disciplined by the other jurisdictions where they are admitted to practice. Another important project of the ABA Center is the creation and dissemination of its Survey on Lawyer Discipline. This annual survey collects important statistics on lawyer discipline from throughout the United States and presents it in readable reports.
NOBC further interacts with the ABA Center through participation by NOBC members on various Center committees and the designation by NOBC of liaisons to each Center committee. Such Committees include: the ABA Standing Committee on Professional Discipline; the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility Coordinating Council; the ABA Standing Committee on Client Protection; the ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism; the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility; the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs; and the ABA Joint Committee on Policy Implementation. The NOBC achieved affiliate status with ABA House of Delegates in 1989-1990.
Growing out of the efforts of an NOBC committee around 1994, Tom McCormick, assistant bar counsel from New Jersey, was instrumental in the development of an organizational listserv, hosted by the American Bar Association since 2000. Since its inception in 1996, the listserv, which is open to active NOBC members, has become an increasingly vital and efficient method of sharing information within the NOBC membership.
NOBC established its presence on the world-wide web when it launched its first website in 1998 at www.NOBC.org. With the assistance of the NOBC Internet Connectivity Committee, implementation of the initial website was led by Mr. McCormick, who was also the pioneering web master. Josh Shipp, the then-teenaged son of the deputy bar counsel from the District of Columbia, made significant contributions to the web site design. NOBC provides comprehensive contact information for all NOBC membership organizations, answers to frequently asked questions about lawyer discipline, access to current case developments and rule-changes bearing on lawyer regulation, and archived discussion threads from the NOBC list-serves.
With the growth of NOBC and its leadership’s obligations to bar regulation activities in their home jurisdictions, NOBC appointed its first part-time administrator, an administrative assistant in the District of Columbia bar counsel’s office, in 1996. Despite her assistance, the organization continued to rely heavily on volunteers from the local jurisdiction for meetings and board members for maintaining records and handling routine administrative matters. In 2002, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission stepped in to assist with the running of the organization. In 2003, the then-President concluded that the tasks of maintaining membership records, planning the logistics of meetings, and other administrative matters, should be handled by staff so that the NOBC Board could concentrate on policy matters – relating both to the organization and to the quickly evolving landscape in the field of attorney discipline. A consensus on these points was developed and a search committee was appointed. A management company was selected and served the organization for several years. Currently, the management company Apex Management & Special Events, Inc. is providing professional services for NOBC.
Monitoring Compensation for Bar Regulation Staff
Like many areas of legal practice, lawyer regulation requires an understanding of complex principles gained primarily through scholarship and experience. Attracting and retaining skilled attorneys in lawyer discipline agencies is an important administrative goal aided in large part by the knowledge gained from salary surveys conducted by NOBC. On a bi-annual basis, NOBC solicits staff salary information from its member organizations and compiles it for the use of its members, all in an effort to assist jurisdictions to keep compensation at a level commensurate with the importance of the responsibilities of professional bar regulators.
Relationship with the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers
Legal representation is vital for any lawyer facing disciplinary action. The Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL) was created in 1990 to provide an organization similar to NOBC for lawyers who represent respondents in lawyer discipline or disability proceedings or are otherwise engaged in law practice or academic activities related to professional responsibility. For a number of years, NOBC and APRL have collaborated by holding their semi-annual meetings in the same locations and co-sponsoring, with the ABA Center, a joint program for members of both organizations focusing on a topic of common interest and a joint reception. These activities have provoked hours of informative and spirited debate. In recent years, cooperative efforts have extended to the formation of joint committees to study issues and make recommendations. The 2007 report on aging lawyers and the 2010 report on legal education and lawyer competence exemplify this collaboration between the two organizations.