Vol. 80, No. 6, June 2007
The older you get, the faster each year seems to fly. For whatever reason, this past year as State Bar president has sped by in the blink of an eye. I have enjoyed it tremendously, and I want to thank everyone who made it possible - from the voters who elected me, to George Brown and the (best ever) State Bar staff who made the way so smooth, to the Board of Governors that challenged me and taught me a lot, to people who agreed and disagreed with my views and took the time to contact me and explain why, and to the lawyers I've met from all over the state. I've appreciated - and hopefully learned from - all of you. I particularly want to thank and express my admiration to all of the lawyers who volunteer their time and effort on State Bar committees, sections, and divisions of all sorts. This is what the Bar is all about. Thanks also to our supreme court justices, who took my friendly jibes with a great sense of humor - great people, even though six of them still haven't passed the Wisconsin bar exam.
When I ran for president-elect in 2005, I raised several issues: voluntary bar, bar exam/diploma privilege discrimination, fair representation for nonresident members, problems that attorneys had been experiencing with the Board of Bar Examiners (BBE), the WisTAF assessment, and a potpourri of others. A year is time enough only to begin the process of dealing with these issues, but there have been some developments. On the voluntary bar front, there is mixed news. Unfortunately, the Board of Governors' Executive Committee voted against even placing on the board's agenda for discussion my proposal to allow an advisory referendum on how you feel on this issue. Apparently, the powers-that-be don't even want you to be able to express your opinions on whether bar membership should be mandatory or voluntary. Despite this setback, there are some positive signs. State Rep. Sheryl Albers has proposed an amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution prohibiting mandatory bar membership (which passed committee), a State Bar rule authorizes a referendum at the request of the membership, and litigation always is a possibility. I'll try again in September to revive the referendum idea before a new Executive Committee and board.
On the diploma privilege front, I appointed a committee to study the present bar admission system and to recommend either keeping it or switching to a nondiscriminatory system in which graduates of all law schools are held to the same standard - either diploma privilege for everyone or bar exam for everyone. But any change on this issue will take time. A great American leader once wrote that "privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily," and I'm sure that will be the case regarding the diploma privilege. Whatever happens, it will be a great case study in human nature to see whether U.W. and Marquette law school graduates will agree to a bar admission system that treats everyone equally or to one that preserves their schools' advantage.
Nonresident bar members will be getting two more seats on the State Bar Board of Governors if the supreme court approves a petition filed this year by the board, and it looks like a compromise has been reached on a comity rule to make CLE reporting much easier for nonresident bar members. (The draft language is not exactly what I would like, but politics is compromise and the art of the possible.)
As I wrote in May, the BBE appears to have become a much kinder, friendlier place with respect to both CLE and bar admission. BBE chair Judge Charles Constantine deserves a great deal of credit for his efforts to update and humanize rules and policies administered by the BBE. The big disappointment here is the lack of progress on an electronic system for reporting CLE. Although both the State Bar and the BBE favor an electronic system, it looks like a couple more years may pass before the supreme court is ready to implement it. The change will happen ... sometime.
Finally, there have been developments concerning the supreme court's WisTAF assessment and the future of indigent legal services in Wisconsin. In March the Board of Governors voted to ask the supreme court to amend the WisTAF rule in two ways: to require judges to pay the WisTAF assessment and to allow you to choose the legal services provider to whom you wish your assessment to go. At the same time, the board received the final report of its Access to Justice Committee, chaired by Judge Richard Sankovitz. The report recommends some new ways to increase funding of indigent legal services (including funding by the legislature) and recommends making the WisTAF assessment permanent. At its May meeting the board adopted the committee's recommendations. (It looks like those of you who oppose the WisTAF assessment will have to look to the political process for relief.)
Over the past year, I've tried my best to raise the issues that I committed to when you elected me - to discuss new (and sometimes controversial) ideas and topics in a rational, respectful way. Now it's up to you. No matter how you feel on these or other issues, get involved in State Bar committees, sections, divisions, and the Board of Governors, and run for State Bar offices. You'll meet lawyers who become friends and colleagues for the rest of your life, you'll contribute to the legal profession and change our legal system, and you'll have as enjoyable a time as I have had this past year. Good luck. Good law.
Please feel free to contact me at net steven.levine charter charter steven.levine net.