Vol. 83, No. 6, June 2010
We have a well-earned and well-deserved national reputation as an outstanding state bar. Given what I have observed during our debate on the mandatory/voluntary bar issue, I appeal to my colleagues and our leadership, including the Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) and the Board of Governors (the board), to maintain the level of professionalism and decorum that is worthy of our entire membership and organization. We should not assume that no harm will come to the organization internally, in terms of integrity and operation, and externally, in terms of credibility and reputation, if we fail to do so.
When I first served on the board in 1990-92, former president Steve Levine, a main driver of the voluntary bar engine, was just getting revved up about the issue. If the issue is not resolved this time around, we will still be a mandatory bar with an important service to provide to our membership. (See the SPC report to the board for an excellent chronology of the integrated bar in Wisconsin and other resources on this issue, at www.wisbar.org/stratplancomm.)
I have two primary purposes in writing. First, as a member of the Board of Governors and the Nonresident Lawyers Division (NRLD) board, I want to share what I have learned about the annual State Bar Membership Dues and Supreme Court Assessments Statement. Understanding this statement has become increasingly important, particularly amid the seemingly never-ending mandatory/voluntary bar debate. If we better understand what constitutes the dues and assessments, the better prepared we will be to discuss whatever changes might be suggested. Second, I want to share how I view my State Bar membership and why I value it. We each have our own perspective.
Understanding the State Bar Membership Dues and Supreme Court Assessments Statement
Supreme Court Assessments. The statement’s first subsection, Fiscal Year 2011 Supreme Court Assessments, is most important for members, because any court assessments listed here are always mandatory, and payment is required to remain a member. Contrary to what some members may think, mandatory supreme court assessments likely would still be required for a person to practice law in Wisconsin, even if the State Bar became a voluntary bar. The voluntary bar likely would be a separate entity with no relationship to the supreme court or its rules regarding the practice of law.
Here are the supreme court assessments for FY 2011, beginning July 1, 2010:
- $155 – Office of Lawyer Regulation;
- $59 – Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation;
- $25 – Wisconsin Lawyers Fund for Client Protection; and
- $18 – Board of Bar Examiners.
At $248 for active members, the supreme court assessments comprise 53 percent of the mandatory annual fees. These assessments cause Wisconsin total fees (dues and assessments) to rank high nationally in the “Background Fee Comparison – Summary Report” (located at www.wisbar.org/stratplancomm).
State Bar Membership Dues. The second subsection, Fiscal Year 2011 State Bar of Wisconsin Membership Dues, simply lists annual membership dues ($224 for full dues-paying active members admitted after May 1, 2008). At $224, the State Bar active-status dues amount ranks among the lowest nationally in the same comparison report referenced above. Some members assume that State Bar dues will automatically decrease under a voluntary bar; it is too early to make that assumption.
For a full dues-paying active member, court assessments and State Bar dues total $472. Some State Bar members mistake this total figure for their State Bar dues, probably because they write one check to the State Bar for dues and court assessments combined. In addition, State Bar dues ($224) have not increased for full dues-paying active members since 2005; however, court assessments (now $248) have modestly increased in recent years, thereby increasing the total paid.
Donna M. Jones, U.W. 1978, Atlanta, Ga., represents the Nonresident Lawyers Division on the State Bar Board of Governors and is a member of the NRLD board.
Activities Provided at No Cost by State Bar on Behalf of Supreme Court and Court agencies. There are several activities that the mandatory State Bar is now required to provide at no charge on behalf of the supreme court and court agencies. One example is collecting and remitting mandatory supreme court assessments. Many of these activities are required by supreme court rules (SCR). Under a voluntary bar, however, the current State Bar would no longer exist, thus necessitating SCR changes and the court possibly purchasing these services from vendors and passing on the additional costs to members through the annual supreme court assessments.
Understanding what constitutes the dues and assessments is important to our discussion of whatever changes might be suggested. Also important is for each member to determine what it is he or she personally values about State Bar membership – for example, I value relationships – and to bring that perspective to the discussion as well.
Valuing Relationships Within the State Bar
During my 32 years in the Bar, I have learned that relationships are the pivotal place where the State Bar’s values and members’ values (at least my values) coincide. Little or nothing of significance happens unless relationships are productive, professional, and mutually satisfying. This applies to relationships with colleagues and staff and to the State Bar’s 60 exclusive member benefits, services, and affinity programs. (For more information, see the new membership brochure at www.wisbar.org/member/brochure.)
Relationships with Members’ Bottom Line. Fastcase™ legal research more than pays for my $224 in State Bar dues. I have free, unlimited access to this 50-state and federal case law database that helps improve my efficiency and accuracy. I also appreciate saving money on continuing legal education (CLE) by using the Ultimate Pass, which provides unlimited access to many CLE courses, delivered in the way I want to get the education – whether live or via video, webcast, OnDemand, or telephone.
Relationships with Members’ Business as New Private Practitioners. Many members, including new practitioners, can benefit from Practice411™ – the State Bar Law Office Management Assistance Program – which offers one-on-one assistance from seasoned Bar staff with considerable experience.
Relationships with Members, Their Families, Friends, and Colleagues. The confidential services provided 24/7 by the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) are invaluable when addressing the sensitive needs of members and their families. Former State Bar president Gary L. Bakke’s article, “My Experience with Depression: Brainstorm” (Wisconsin Lawyer, Dec. 2000), was a brave and salient illustration of WisLAP’s importance to members. While serving on the Georgia state board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I became aware of stigmas and fears about mental illness, and so I have a keen appreciation for the important services WisLAP provides.
I have learned that the State Bar life insurance policy I took out decades ago has a provision that could allow the policy to pay my premiums if I become totally disabled. Please scrutinize your State Bar member benefits services to learn how to take full advantage of them.
My Personal Relationships with the State Bar
By Choice. Before I retired, I had a dual career during which I earned my living as an administrator with my M.P.A. and used my J.D. to improve the legal profession and the administration of justice. I continue to enjoy providing volunteer service. Since my livelihood did not rely on my J.D., at each membership renewal I had to consider whether it was worthwhile to remain a member. Like many attorneys, I must pay my own membership dues and assessments. I discovered the more involved I became, the more my dues worked for me and for others.
Long-term Relationships. In advocating for “pure CLE comity,” Steve Levine (former State Bar president and Board of Bar Examiners Review Committee member) and I (as NRLD president) drew on our long-term relationship as colleagues over some 30 years to gain a better understanding of each other’s perspective and determine how to strategize for success. As a result of these efforts, nonresident lawyers, who comprise about a third of State Bar members, now enjoy pure CLE comity.
Committees. In the 1980s, the Legal Association for Women expressed concerns about fair treatment of women attorneys as their numbers increased. The Special Committee for the Participation of Women in the Bar was created to examine the integration of women in the State Bar. The committee conducted a significant survey, which showed “the beginning of women’s integration in the Bar,” in areas like section membership and leadership opportunities.
As a result of the report, then Chief Justice Nathan Heffernan appointed a statewide Equal Justice Task Force to examine disparate treatment of women clients and attorneys by judges and attorneys. The task force issued its report in 1991. I served on both the task force and the committee and coauthored the committee’s research report. The committee also held CLE programs on the then new federal sexual-harassment law.
Sections. The Chippewa treaty rights dispute drew national media attention to Wisconsin and became the catalyst for the State Bar’s first CLE program on Indian law, “Contemporary and Traditional Native American Legal Issues,” in 1990 and the creation of the Indian Law Section in 1991.
Threats and violence at spearfishing sites were escalating, but most Wisconsin lawyers were unfamiliar with this area of law. I suggested that the Committee on Women sponsor the seminar, served as cochair, and drew on advice from U.W. Law School Legal and Educational Opportunities (LEO) Program classmates to create the panel of program attorneys from across Wisconsin and the country. The program’s success was reflected in its audience of attorneys, judges, and Wisconsin Supreme Court justices.
When I served on the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section board in the 1990s, we presented a CLE program on the death penalty. I recall it as the first time I seriously considered my position on the subject.
Nonresident Lawyers Division. In 2003, I did not know what to expect when I returned to active status at the Bar, as an NRLD board member and later as an NRLD representative to the Board of Governors. The NRLD board’s professionalism, hard work, and steadfastness paid off for nonresident members. Although we are situated in diverse geographic locations, we have worked together well and wrinkles in our relationships have been relatively few.
That the NRLD has finally achieved three major milestones for its membership is remarkable, given that the NRLD has been pursuing these goals for years. In addition to CLE comity, the NRLD representation on the Board of Governors increased from three seats to five seats and nonresident lawyers gained the right to run for board chair and State Bar treasurer and secretary. This year, the NRLD had its first three candidates run for State Bar office and its first NRLD member elected secretary. The NRLD also returned to offering convention CLE programs and established the Founders award for outstanding members.
State Bar Executive Director and Staff. Executive Director George Brown and I first met when I was the contract compliance officer for the city of Madison and he served on the Community Block Grant Development Committee. The Special Committee’s Research Survey Report on Women’s Participation in the Bar was his first special major project as the State Bar public affairs director. Mutual respect, trust, and continuity have sustained our relationship.
The State Bar experience for many members is enhanced through staff relationships. Staff members make the State Bar engine run. My experience has been that, while Bar volunteers and leaders come and go, staff members continue to provide high-quality services and program support, and turnover is low.
I end by sharing some insights that have stayed with me. An exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago on “everything is relative” that I saw as a child taught me that everyone’s perspective counts and should be respected. The late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm replied, “Progress is temporary, my dear,” when I asked how she was able to handle being the only (and first) African American woman elected to the House of Representatives. She succinctly added, “You must always be vigilant.”
Lastly, in considering and discussing important issues, I would like us to remember that one need not be disagreeable to disagree.