State Bar, under scrutiny for Tom Girardi, gives director $43,000 raise

The State Bar of California, under scrutiny for longstanding failures to protect the public from Tom Girardi and other unscrupulous attorneys, gave its chief executive a nearly $43,000 pay rise this week.

The raise brought Leah T. Wilson’s annual salary to $344,000, an amount that dwarfs the salaries of Gov. Gavin Newsom ($218,556) and other prominent government officials who oversee larger organizations, including the Attorney General ($189,841 US dollars) and the recently appointed California Chief Justice ($293,286).

The 14% increase for Wilson was sparked by the hiring of another high-paid official at the government agency, General Counsel Ellin Davtyan, this month for a salary of $328,000. The terms of Wilson’s contract require her to earn at least 5% more than her highest-paid colleague, forcing the bar Monday to increase her executive salary by $42,737.

Agency officials defended the salaries as necessary given inflation and the compensation that seasoned lawyers like Wilson and Davtyan might demand in the private sector.

“It’s a competitive marketplace for attorneys,” said Ruben Duran, a San Bernardino County attorney who chairs the prosecutor’s board. He said comparisons to the governor’s salaries and those of others were 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 how government employees are paid are unconvinced.

“I’m not buying it,” said Michael Genest, who served as finance director for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He said he’s known many talented prosecutors who put in long hours for more modest salaries because of their belief in mission and what Gov. Jerry Brown once called the “psychic income” of public service. “These guys were fantastic lawyers and they made normal civil servant salaries.”

In Sacramento, lawmakers were already questioning agency salaries in general when the new salaries went into effect. The Bar Association must go to the legislature each year to approve its annual attorney fee estimate, a measure that largely determines its revenue. On Tuesday, the convention approved a 2023 fee of $390 per active attorney.

An analysis prepared ahead of the final vote pointed to Wilson and Davtyan’s compensation as part of a long history of “disproportionately high” pay at the bar.

“These significant salary increases are expected to impact other state bar executives and widen the already wide pay gap between the bar and other state agencies,” the analysis reads.

The Bar Association, the largest in the country, licenses California’s 260,000 attorneys and is tasked with investigating and disciplining attorneys who cheat on clients or engage in other types of wrongdoing. After Girardi’s spectacular fall and evidence he embezzled millions of settlement funds, critics have berated the agency for botched complaints against him.

According to a report by The Times last year on the legendary barrister’s training of paralegals, the agency conducted its own audit which found “errors made in some investigations over the many decades of Mr Girardi’s career, which spanned some 40 years go back years”. A separate audit ordered by lawmakers found systemic flaws, with attorneys avoiding public accountability despite long records of misconduct complaints. Currently, a law firm hired by the Bar Association is investigating whether officials within the agency helped Girardi evade punishment.

The bar has pledged to reform; Duran, the chief executive, said Wilson’s role as chief executive is key to that effort. Wilson started working at the bar in 2015, served as managing director from 2017-2020 and served as a paid consultant for the agency until last summer, when she returned to the post of managing director.

Top bar managers in some other states make less than their California counterparts, though their agencies are smaller than the 610-seat State Bar of California, and the cost of living is often lower than in San Francisco and LA, where the agency has offices. In Florida, for example, with around 278 employees, the managing director receives $220,000 annually. 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 plan. Duran said her salary of $328,000 was reasonable compared to other candidates’ demands.

“It was less than some people came out of the gate to ask,” he said.

When asked if the salary was reasonable, Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court said, “It’s too early to tell.”

“I have no problem with her earning a decent salary; The General Counsel is doing a great job. But the incentives have to be set up so people don’t get a raise if the bar doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do,” he said.

Neither Wilson nor Davtyan are responsible for investigating and disciplining individual attorneys. That duty falls to the trial’s lead attorney, 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 posted on the bar’s website.

Robert Fellmeth, a former barrister who is advising the agency on reforming its disciplinary system, said he offered to work for free last year but the Bar Association insisted on paying him. He said he makes $50 an hour, which he donates to the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law, where he serves as executive director.

He said without studying the payroll data, he could not influence executive pay.

“I will tell you that such high levels absolutely warrant an investigation,” he said. State Bar, under scrutiny for Tom Girardi, gives director $43,000 raise

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