Dist. 3 Gov. Paul Swanson, Oshkosh, discusses the budget, including a $30 dues increase.
Dist. 2 Gov. Anique Ruiz, Milwaukee, attends the board meeting in La Crosse.
Young Lawyers Division representative Lee Turonie, Shawano, with Christina Plum, the State Bar delegate to the ABA House of Delegates.
Dist. 8 Gov. Michael Waterman (left), Hudson, with Dist. 2 Gov. Nick Zales, Milwaukee.
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April 25, 2014 – The State Bar of Wisconsin’s Board of Governors today approved a membership dues increase of $30 starting in the 2015 fiscal year. The increase, which raises State Bar dues to $254, is the first dues increase in a decade.
The State Bar’s 52-member governing body supported the dues increase as part of the overall 2015 budget, which it approved at its board meeting today in La Crosse. The board discussed the 2015 budget proposal at its previous meeting in February.
The board followed the recommendation of the State Bar’s Finance Committee, a nine-member group that annually reviews proposed budgets and advises the board on the organization’s financial matters. Nick Vivian serves as Finance Committee Chair.
In February, Vivian said the dues increase, which will generate approximately $592,000 in new revenue, was necessary to preserve and expand existing programs and services. It also allows the organization to explore new revenue streams in the future, he said.
The approved $12 million budget represents a 1.19 percent increase from last year’s budget, with funds to support two new positions in PINNACLE and the State Bar’s Law Office Management Program (LOMAP).
The dues increase and the overall budget was approved on a voice vote, but the increase did not pass without comments from some governors and representatives who said it would hurt financially struggling lawyers, particularly young lawyers and solo and small firm practitioners.
Dist. 11 Gov. Richard Summerfield, of Bloomer, moved to remove the dues increase in full. When that motion failed, he moved to reduce the dues increase to $18. That motion was also voted down.
Dues increase supporters noted that the State Bar's reserves have dwindled in recent years, and the board has a fiscal responsibility to keep the State Bar on solid financial ground while maintaining member demand for essential programs and services.
State Bar Executive Director George Brown also explained the major cost-cutting efforts the State Bar has pursued to keep expenditures down. Those efforts will continue, he said, as well as efforts to seek alternative revenue streams.
Reserves Low, Cuts Undesired
In February, Vivian noted that prior attempts to raise dues failed because reserves were available to fill deficit gaps. “But those reserves are now largely depleted,” he said.
Since 2007, the State Bar’s reserve funds have been depleted by nearly $1 million, including a reserve fund used to avoid or mitigate dues increases. In prior discussions, Vivian noted that the consumer price index has climbed 20 percent in the last decade while dues remained steady. Thus, the cost to provide services to members rose consistently with no corresponding dues increase since 2005.
Board Signals Commitment to Diversity
The board signaled its commitment to diversity in the legal profession by adding a goal to the State Bar’s strategic plan, a shared vision of the organization’s future.
The organization’s strategic plan now includes a provision to “foster greater inclusion and increase diversity in the State Bar and the legal profession.” The State Bar’s Diversity Task Force, chaired by Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Carl Ashley, will deliver a report with recommendations to achieve that goal at the board’s next meeting.
Judge Ashley, updating the board via video comments, said the task force intends to define diversity and articulate what diversity inclusion means for the State Bar and its members.
He also said the task force would recommend ways to promote diversity within the State Bar, identify the State Bar’s role in promoting diversity in the state’s two law schools and within the legal profession, and recommend a structure for administration.
In February, Several board members raised the prospect of cutting programs and services to balance the budget, as opposed to a dues increase. Today, several members again raised concerns that the State Bar has not done enough to reduce expenditures.
Cutting major services and programs was not a desirable option, Vivian previously noted, as member demand for and use of programming and services has increased significantly.
To fund recent expansions in valued programs like LOMAP and the Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program (WisLAP), Ethics and Pro Bono, the organization trimmed expenses and eliminated waste through cost controls and the renegotiation of contracts.
Brown noted that in 2012, the organization reduced its staff by 10 percent, in addition to other cost-cutting measures. Member demand in specific areas has required new hires since then, he said.
Young Lawyer Division representative Lee Turonie reiterated that for young lawyers, it's a "straight cost issue." Dist. 2 Gov. Raymond Dall'Osto wondered whether the State Bar could explore a dues payment plan for lawyers struggling financially, but also said the State Bar has a duty to be fiscally responsible when it comes to the organization as a whole.
Dist. 3 Gov. Paul Swanson said the State Bar board saw a need for a dues increase three years ago, but voted against it because lawyers were struggling then too and reserves were still available.
"This is a small fix," said Swanson, who supported the increase. "The State Bar must continue to find ways to cut expenses and new opportunities for revenue."
What Will I Pay Now?
Full dues paying members will pay $254 per year, an increase of $30. Active new members (lawyers admitted to their first bar after April 30, 2012), as well as inactive members will pay half-dues of $127. Non-voting judicial members will pay $170.
Emeritus members will continue to pay no State Bar dues. A State Bar proposal to extend dues relief to lawyers in their first five years (instead of three) and change the Emeritus dues structure was not approved by the supreme court as presented.
State Bar dues are separate from court assessments for the Board of Bar Examiners, the Office of Lawyer Regulation, the Client Protection Fund, and the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation. However, the State Bar collects those assessments.
Assessment amounts are tied to State Bar membership status. Currently, full-dues paying members pay $236 in Wisconsin Supreme Court assessments.