James J. Bierbower's tenure as president of the D.C. Bar got off to an auspicious start last week.
First, Bierbower was asked politely to explain at a meeting of the bar board of governors why he and an unofficial committee of three lawyers showed up unannounced one morning at the bar's lawyer referral serivce office, causing an uproar over the access to records and files.
As part of his reply to the governors, Bierbower disclosed that without consulting the board, he had written a letter to a judge on the local appeals court -- which in bar parlance means the boss -- and described the service's director as uncooperative.
At the board's request, Bierbower passed around copies of his correspondence on the matter, and its acrimonious tone left no doubt the bar's new president intends to play tough as long as he's in charge.
"I want to find out everything I can legitimately find out about [the Lawyer Referral and Information Service] and about the whole bar.
"I am the president. And I want to find out what's going on, if it takes all year," Bierbower said in an interview.
The fireworks started early, on July 2. Bierbower made a surprise appearance at the bar offices at 9 a.m. to see Paul V. Carlin, director of the lawyer referral service.
Bierbower says he went to get some questions answered by Judge Frank Q. Nebeker of the D.C. Court of Appeals. With him for the visit were John Jude O'Donnell and Bernard Nordlinger, who, like Bierbower, are former presidents of the voluntary D.C. Bar Association, and Chris May, whom Bierbower later described as "a long-time friend of mine."
Carlin says his staff overheard a member of Bierbower's committee comment that the lawyer referral service should be killed. Such things are not taken lightly at the bar, ever since the appeals court, which officially oversees the bar, upheld a membership referendum that forced the bar to cut its dues and drastically reduce its budget and staff.
There also has been a long-standing rivalry between the lawyer referrel service run by the bar, which every lawyer in town is required to join, and a similar service operated by the voluntary bar association.
So, when three former presidents of the bar association show up at Carlin's office, demand information and use a word like killed, the staff gets a little paranoid. They were sure Bierbower and his crew were there the exterminate the bar lawyer referral service. "Disrupted" is how Carlin diplomatically described the office atmosphere.
It was "a most unsettling event," Carlin said in a memo he wrote afterward. Some of the questions were "by no means cordial." bierbower and his committee wanted to investigate records of clients who contact the referal service, but Carlin said no, an official bar committee had decided they were confidential.
"I don't want to say he gave us nothing, but I had the clear [impressions] that we were getting the stone wall," Bierbower said later.
"I've told everybody I'm going to get to the bottom of it if I have to do it myself. I will conduct a Bierbower one-man inquiry until I get to the bottom of it."
Bierbower said later that the reason he went to Carlin's office in the first place, and the reason he formed his committee, was to answer a question from Nebeker about the level of cooperation, if there ever has been any, between the two lawyer referral services.
After the visit to Carlin's office, Bierbower wrote a letter to Judge Nebeker.
Carlin had refused to give him the information he wanted, Bierbower said, and had cited the confidentiality of the records. Bierbower said when he asked the bar's executive director, J. David Ellwanger, to show him the records that had won the referral service a prestigious national award, Ellwanger said he couldn't find them.
"Suffice it to say that my encounters with Messrs. Carlin and Ellwanger do not bode well for the future," Bierbower wrote in the letter to Nebeker. Bierbower than took a shot at both Carlin and Ellwanger.
Carlin "has intimated he will be leaving the bar for another job," Bierbower wrote. In fact, Carlin will become executive director of the Baltimore City Bar in Septermber. "Perhaps his departure -- if it comes -- will at least permit the bar's new president to find out what's happening" at the lawyer referrel service, Bierbower said in his letter.
Ellwanger hasn't mentioned getting another job, Bierbower said. He went on to note, however, that a letter of Ellwanger's recently published in a legal newspaper "would seem to indicate he will not be entirely happy in living with the results of the court's recent decision" upholding the membership referendum.
"I can assure you that I will remain on the job for my one-year term, and that your question will be answered as soon as I obtain the necessary information," Bierbower told Nebeker in the letter.
Last week, at the board of governors' request, Bierbower wrote a supplemental letter to Nebeker saying, "A majority of the board seemed to think an existing bar committee should prepare a response to your question" and that a committee would do so.
That same day, Bierbower sent a memo to Ellwanger:
"I will conduct my own inquiry of the Lawyer Referrel and Information Service. The areas to be covered will be unlimited as far as I am concerned," he said.
Putting further fear into the referral service staff, Bierbower asked in his Ellwanger memo for a list of everyone who works there -- even volunteers -- and said he intends to interview every single one of them "in your presence."
Then he asked for the salaries paid each staff member when his predecessor, Steven J. Pollak was bar president.
Finally, Bierbower said, "Please prepare a detailed list of all . . . files and other information which will not be made available to me."
"I don't feel I've had the cooperation that should be given the president," Bierbower said. "When the president can't go and get information about the bar, I'd call it an adversary situation."
But he added later, "Life will go on . . . I'll be there."
Confrontation is the last thing the bar needs, especially when a lot of people there are still reeling from a membership vote that drastically cut back on bar activities.
Bierbower, a conservative, has long felt he's gotten the cold shoulder from the liberals who dominate bar leadership. Now that he is the president, as he reminds, he could have declared a truce, but he seemed intent on picking a fight instead.