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    Decline in Membership

    Recent law school enrollment and practice trends have result in a milestone: the State Bar’s net membership will decline for the first time since the Bar became a mandatory organization almost 60 years ago.

    George C. Brown

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    For the first time since the Wisconsin Supreme Court created the mandatory bar association in 1957, the State Bar of Wisconsin is projected to lose membership during the 2017-2018 fiscal year (FY18), which runs from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018.

    George C. Brownorg gbrown wisbar George C. Brown is the executive director for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    For much of the last 30 years, the State Bar has grown by an average of approximately 400 net members each year. That net membership number is what is called a “full dues equivalent” number. About five years ago, after the effects of the Great Recession began to be felt, that number dropped to an increase of about 250. For this fiscal year, that number increased by 18.

    The full dues equivalent number is reached by calculating the number of lawyers who pay full dues, judges who pay two-thirds dues, inactive members who pay one-half dues, and emeritus members who pay no dues. Subtracted are those members who give up their license or pass away. Currently, the State Bar’s membership is approximately 25,000 lawyers who are licensed in Wisconsin. The full dues equivalent number is approximately 20,000.

    For FY18, the full dues equivalent number is projected to decrease by 244.

    The reasons are really quite simple. Fewer people are going to law school. The current U.W. Law School 1L class enrollment is 149. Before the Great Recession, the numbers were in the upper 200s or more. The Marquette Law School class also has seen the gradual reduction of law school class size as the national pool of applicants has shrunk. Bar examinations are down as well. Historically, approximately 200 lawyers would take the exam in July and approximately 100 in February. Lately, those numbers are around 130 and the low 80s.

    We are seeing a shift in the population of lawyers. While fewer new lawyers are entering the profession, older lawyers are working longer.

    In addition, we are seeing a shift in the population of lawyers. While fewer new lawyers are entering the profession, older lawyers are working longer. The result is the increase in the number of emeritus members, those members 70 years old or older who can still practice law but pay no dues or supreme court assessments and no longer must complete CLE requirements. Decreasing numbers of new lawyers and increasing numbers of emeritus members are major factors in the projected decrease in the full dues equivalent membership numbers.

    The decrease in full dues equivalent membership has an effect on more than the State Bar. It also affects the Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR), the Board of Bar Examiners (BBE), the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, and the Public Interest Legal Services Fund. All these entities set their budgets based on the State Bar’s full dues equivalent number. And while the OLR and the BBE will have fewer lawyers to regulate, emeritus members remain subject to the OLR even if they do not pay the assessment as do other active lawyers.

    For many years, various individuals who look to the future of the profession have stated that we should expect a decrease in the number of lawyers, and some also have projected an increase in the number of legal professionals other than lawyers. It looks as though the first part, at least for Wisconsin, is coming true.