All lawyers in Georgia are members of the State Bar of Georgia. The State Bar has been around in some form since the late 1800s when it was called the Georgia Bar Association. It was not until the 1960s that all lawyers in the state were required to be members of the State Bar of Georgia. Now there are more than 36,000 active members.

The purpose of the State Bar is to foster among its members the principles of duty and service to the public; to improve the administration of justice; and to advance the science of law.

Stewart Melvin & Frost partner and senior litigator Doug Stewart. Over the years, Doug has served as the State Bar’s president and treasurer. In 1992, he received the State Bar of Georgia’s highest accolade, the Distinguished Service Award. Doug also has been a member of the State Bar’s Board of Governors since 1972 and was a member of the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association for 20 years.

Question: Will you start by giving us some background on the State Bar of Georgia and what is its main responsibility?

Doug: Operating under the supervision of the Supreme Court of Georgia, the State Bar of Georgia is the governing body for lawyers in the State of Georgia. Membership is a condition of admission to practice law in Georgia.

The main responsibility the State Bar has is administering its codes of ethics and discipline that are enforced by the Supreme Court of Georgia through the State Bar’s Office of the General Counsel.

Question:  How does the State Bar handle disciplinary issues?

Doug: Georgia lawyers are bound by strict rules of ethics in all of their professional dealings. The Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct help define a lawyer’s obligations to clients, to the judicial system, and to the public. Although the Supreme Court of Georgia retains ultimate authority to regulate the legal profession, the State Bar of Georgia’s Office of the General Counsel serves as the Court’s arm to investigate and prosecute claims that a lawyer has violated the ethics rules.

Members of the public who believe that a Georgia lawyer has violated the rules of ethics should contact the State Bar’s Consumer Assistance Program to file a complaint. The complaint is reviewed by the Grievance Counsel. If there is merit to complaint, it is turned over to the Investigative Panel which appoints one or more of its members to investigate the charges.

If the Investigative Panel finds probable cause that an attorney has violated one or more Bar rules, the General Counsel’s office prosecutes the case in front of the Georgia Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will determine any disciplinary action.

Question: What are other ways the State Bar helps advance the practice of law?

Doug: Continuing education is one. The State Bar has 48 sections of law and provides specialized services and information to members in their respective areas of the law such as business law, family law and real estate law. Each section develops seminars, approved Institute for Continuing Legal Education, which allows lawyers to maintain their required amount of continuing education each year.

The Bar also has a number of committees that study legal issues and find ways to advance the practice of law in the state. My colleague Mark Alexander serves on the Long Range Planning Committee.

Question: The State Bar has programs that benefit the public. Will you tell us about some of these programs?

Doug: I mentioned the Bar’s Consumer Assistance Program when discussing how to file a complaint but the program is also a clearinghouse for the public. The Consumer Assistance Program helps identify a person’s problem and which State Bar department may be able to help.

Most of the time, people are just looking for direction for how to handle a situation with a lawyer. They are not looking to file a complaint. Another way is through pro bono services. The Bar encourages all its lawyers to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono services each year and contribute financially to legal aid and pro bono programs.

Volunteer lawyers across the state make a difference for people who otherwise cannot afford representation to resolve a critical legal problem. Also, the Bar has a Military Legal assistance program that assists service members and veterans by connecting them to State Bar members who are willing to provide free or reduced-fee legal services.

Service members and veterans sometimes have legal needs in their personal lives because of their military service. They also face financial issues and other civil law matters resulting from the sacrifices made in military life. Depending on eligibility, clients will be connected to a lawyer in their geographic area with expertise in their area of need.

As you can tell, the State Bar is an active organization that works to benefit the legal community and the public.