According to its website, the State Bar of Georgia exists “to foster among the members of the Bar of this state the principles of duty and service to the public; to improve the administration of justice; and to advance the science of law.” As of last August, the organization has 38,700 active members in good standing and 9,041 inactive members in good standing.
The bar has strict codes of ethics and discipline that are enforced by the Supreme Court of Georgia through the state bar’s Office of the General Counsel, which is headed up by Paula Frederick.
Housed at the bar’s headquarters in downtown Atlanta, the Office of the General Counsel includes 10 lawyers, five paralegals, two investigators, the clerk of the Disciplinary Boards and six assistants.
The office provides day-to-day legal advice to the officers, directors and employees of the organization, oversees the work of outside counsel and provides support to the human resources director and all of the bar’s internal departments. The team handles contract review, insurance, employment matters and some litigation in-house.
Two of the lawyers in the office serve as bar counsel, not assigned a disciplinary caseload but devoting 100 percent of their time to the bar’s in-house counsel work. The bar counsel unit also serves as staff to several bar committees that draft rules and policy for consideration by the bar’s Board of Governors and the state Supreme Court.
“There is a steady stream of litigation from the disciplinary process—lawsuits filed by lawyers whom the office is prosecuting, or by grievants who are unhappy that their grievance was dismissed,” Frederick said.
Robert “Bob” Goldstucker has handled most of the bar’s outside counsel work for many years. The organization also uses Bennet Alsher at FordHarrison for employment matters.
Recently, Larry Pless of Pless & Sauro, Jonathan McCants of Bird, Loechl, Brittain & McCants and Joe Davis of McGee & Oxford shepherded the bar through the transition that brought the Institute for Continuing Legal Education into the bar and sold off its assets in Athens.
“We have been lucky; we can usually recruit a bar member to provide specialized advice on a volunteer basis when we need it,” Frederick said, noting that in the past she has sought advice from Jennifer Sandberg and Josh Viau at Fisher & Phillips and Margaret Hanrahan at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, who have helped on a variety of insurance- and employment-related matters. Frederick said she used Christian Torgrimson of Pursley Friese Torgrimson in a condemnation case involving the bar center.
“I would be remiss if I did not mention bar stalwarts like Charlie Lester, Mary Anne Oakley and John Marshall, who have given the bar the benefit of their good advice for many, many years,” she added.
“No two days are alike at the bar,” Frederick said. “I’m either attending a meeting or preparing for the next one.”
She added: “There’s always a ‘hot’ issue that becomes the priority on any given day.”
Frederick said that she spends a lot of time communicating with bar leaders about issues confronting the organization, uses her American Bar Association connections to research issues or monitor national trends and provides ethics advice to members.
“I enjoy doing CLE presentations, and this time of year I speak at seminars once or twice a week,” she said, noting that she often relies on her two deputy GCs to supervise the staff and manage the office.
Route to the Top
After graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School in 1982, Frederick began her career as a staff attorney at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.
“After six years, I realized that Executive Director Steve Gottlieb wasn’t going to retire so that I could have his job, and he’s still there, 30 years later,” she said, laughing.
At the suggestion of now-retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Mel Westmoreland, Frederick said she applied for a job in the Office of General Counsel in 1988.
“I didn’t expect to get an offer, and I certainly didn’t expect to stay for 30 years,” said Frederick, who succeeded former longtime GC Bill Smith when he retired in 2009. “To my surprise, I found I really liked the job.”
Frederick has many family members in Atlanta—three sisters and two nieces, one of whom just passed the Georgia bar exam.
“I like to cook, so my house is usually full of people who like to eat,” she said.
Frederick also enjoys travel, good food and the company of lawyers. In her spare time, she enjoys gardening at her Grant Park home and long walks with her two South Georgia hound/mutts, Hazel and Hallie.
“They wandered into the yard of a woman in Hazlehurst,” Frederick said, explaining their names. “I suspect they were kicked off one of the hunting plantations down there, but they are spoiled city hounds now.”
What Keeps You Up at Night?
“There’s always someone out there who is upset with the bar or who thinks my office has not handled a matter properly.
“I worry about staff stress and burnout, making sure everyone feels appreciated and keeping all the balls in the air.”
How Quickly Does the Bar Act on Complaints?
“Last year, the Supreme Court approved new rules for handling disciplinary cases that went into effect July 1. One purpose of the overhaul was to reduce the time it takes to bring a case to completion. We have added time limits for each stage of the process, but the rules have not been in effect long enough to tell what impact they will have.”
What Trends Do You See About Why Lawyers Get Into Trouble?
“The reasons lawyers get into trouble have not changed; most grievances involve communication problems. The more serious cases involve theft of client funds. In both types of cases there is often an underlying problem in the lawyer’s life that leads to the ethics infraction.
“We have seen an increase in cases involving lawyers who suffer from various impairments, ranging from opioid addiction to dementia. The new rules allow the State Disciplinary Board to refer for evaluation a lawyer who appears to suffer from an impairment at the earliest stages of the investigation. We hope this will help us limit the harm that an impaired lawyer can cause. The bar has also created a new peer-to-peer mentoring program for the Lawyer Assistance Program, and the Senior Lawyers Committee is working to educate lawyers about the need to plan for possible incapacity.”