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James Towery appointed to head discipline system

James Towery
James Towery

Longtime trial attorney James E. Towery, who served as president of the State Bar in 1995-96, was appointed last month as the bar’s chief trial counsel. If confirmed by the state Senate, Towery will take over as head of the office that prosecutes California lawyers for professional misconduct. The statutory term of office is four years.

Towery is a partner with San Jose’s Hoge, Fenton, Jones & Appel Inc., where he chairs the litigation practice group and specializes in civil litigation with a focus on professional liability. “I have devoted substantial efforts to public protection issues throughout my career,” he said. “Serving as the State Bar’s chief trial counsel is both a logical next step and the culmination of that passion.”

State Bar President Howard Miller said Towery “brings a combination of experience, skill and dedication to help us in a very challenging environment. He will have the full support of the board of the governors and our entire staff.”

An expert in lawyer ethics, Towery, 61, has a long history of involvement with the bar’s lawyer discipline operation, including a year-long stint chairing the board of governors discipline committee in 1994. He oversaw implementation of the recommendations of a specially appointed study group that greatly increased the efficiency and operation of the system. The recommendations led to streamlining staff and functions within the system and significantly reduced the office budget, which consumes the lion’s share of bar revenues.

“The discipline system that emerged was stronger, leaner and provided better public protection,” Towery said, adding that the system is “the best in the country with a high degree of professionalism.”

He said he approaches the new job with a sense of excitement and feels “like a little kid.”

“It’s going to be challenging and difficult,” he added, “but it’s just a great opportunity and a great office.”

As chief trial counsel, Towery will oversee an office of 250 attorneys, investigators and support staff, who work in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The discipline office, by far the State Bar’s largest operation, receives thousands of complaints annually, investigates about 5,000 misconduct allegations and prosecutes some 500 lawyers a year. It has an annual budget of $40 million.

“What we were looking for,” explained Bill Hebert, chair of the bar board’s discipline committee, “is somebody who’s an expert on ethics and has ideas about how to improve the discipline system while keeping it fair.

“Jim Towery exhibits a mastery and knowledge of the discipline system that I think is unequaled by any outsider.”

The chief trial counsel position was defined by statute in 1986; since then, five people have held the job. It has been vacant for a year, stalled following Gov. Schwarzenegger’s veto of the State Bar dues bill in October. Towery was one of three finalists ultimately drawn from a pool of 40 applicants.

After leaving the board of governors, Towery remained active in public protection efforts, chairing the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Public Protection and heading a task force that recommended requiring uninsured lawyers to disclose that fact to their clients. He also is a member of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers.

He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University, his law degree from Emory University School of Law and was admitted to the California bar in 1977. He lives in San Jose with his wife, Santa Clara assistant district attorney Karyn Sinunu-Towery. His son is a lieutenant colonel in the Army, stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington.