March 4, 2021 – The Wisconsin Supreme Court this week granted the State Bar of Wisconsin’s request to modify the “Emeritus” classification of State Bar membership.
Currently, Emeritus is an "active" membership class. Lawyers may elect Emeritus status at age 70 and continue actively practicing law, unrestricted, without paying annual State Bar dues or annual Wisconsin Supreme Court assessments, aside from a fee to the court’s client protection fund. Additionally, Emeritus members are exempt from continuing legal education (CLE) requirements.
As the court’s final order states, the State Bar “filed a rule petition asking the court to modify Supreme Court Rule (SCR) 10.03 to clarify who is an active or inactive emeritus lawyer and to clarify the scope of permitted practice for the various members.”
Effective July 1, 2021, Emeritus becomes an "inactive" membership class. Members who elect Emeritus status, available at age 70, can no longer actively practice law.
However, future Emeritus members – as well as Inactive members (those in the Inactive membership class) – are allowed to do pro bono work through “qualified pro bono programs.”
Future Emeritus-status members are inactive, nondues-paying members (with no CLE requirements), but will continue to receive the benefits of State Bar membership.
Those who elected or elect Emeritus status prior to July 1, 2021, are granted “legacy status.” They can still actively practice law, without restriction, with no State Bar dues, court assessments, or CLE requirements.
70-plus in Active Practice
Under the modification, effective July 1 and applicable on a prospective basis, those 70-plus members still actively practicing law are considered “Active” – subject to full State Bar dues (currently, $260 for Active members), Wisconsin Supreme Court assessments (currently, $231), and full CLE requirements (30 credits every two years).
However, at age 75, Active members automatically become “Senior Active” members, subject to half State Bar dues, half court assessments, and half the required CLE.
Thus, Senior Active members will need 15 CLE credits every two years (3 credits must be ethics credits, the same number of required ethics credits for Active members).
Emeritus Task Force
The court’s order, modifying the Emeritus membership class, is the final product of a 12-person Emeritus Task Force appointed in 2018 to study the issue and make recommendations in consultation with the Senior Lawyers Division (SLD).
The Emeritus Task Force consisted of two SLD past presidents, a SLD member, a retired Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, Nonresident Lawyers Division members, past and current State Bar presidents and officers, and other member representatives.
The task force was appointed to examine the current Emeritus structure, governed by supreme court rules, as more attorneys actively practice law well into their 70s and State Bar membership demographics have shifted over the last 50 years. The current Emeritus structure was established in 1975, more than 45 years ago.
About 14 percent of the current membership (3,456 members) is age 70 and over. About 71 percent of the 70-plus members have elected Emeritus status. Currently, about one-third of the membership is age 60 and over, and about 19 percent are ages 60 to 69.
“Being age 70 in 1975, when this was originally enacted, is very different than being 70 today,” said Jill Kastner, immediate past-president of the State Bar in a 2020 Board of Governors meeting. Kastner noted that no other state appeared to have one membership category that includes both actively practicing and retired members.
“Going forward, we want to distinguish between those who are practicing and those who are retired,” she said.
The court’s modification draws a clear distinction between those who are truly retired (Emeritus), and those 70-plus attorneys who continue to actively practice law.
According to the court’s order, members age 70 and over who elect Emeritus status prior to July 1, 2021, “retain all the privileges of active membership,” including the right to practice law unrestricted,” and need not pay membership dues or obtain any CLE.
New Membership Classifications
|Existing Emeritus – 70+ (election before July 1, 2021)
|New Emeritus – 70+ (election on or after July 1, 2021)
||No legal practice permitted except for pro bono through qualified pro bono programs
|Active – Up to 75
||30 CLE credits every two-year reporting period
||Full Dues; Full Supreme Court Assessments
|Senior Active 75+
||15 CLE credits every two-year reporting period
||Half State Bar Dues; Half Supreme Court Assessments
History and Debate
In September 2020, the State Bar’s 52-member Board of Governors approved the filing of a petitionto change the Emeritus classification, after significant debate.
The Senior Lawyers Division (SLD) board supported the petition after rejecting prior proposals. The State Bar board debated the issueat numerous meetings.
During debates, some members argued that the current Emeritus status – and its exemption from dues, court fees, and CLE requirements – was a recognition of senior lawyers’ long service to the profession, the structure has worked, and there was no problem to fix.
However, other members argued that 70-plus attorneys should not be exempted from dues and assessments if they are “actively” practicing law while using State Bar programs and services, especially as more members practice well into their 70s.
Others questioned why the most experienced lawyers should be required to obtain CLE, or why they shouldn’t if actively practicing law in an ever-changing environment.
The task force had recommended that actively practicing attorneys should be required to obtain CLE, regardless of age, as a matter of consumer confidence and protection.
Initially, the SLD board objected to any changes to the Emeritus classification. Ultimately, however, the SLD supported the final proposal, presented to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which included modifications that were acceptable to the SLD.
“This proposal is designed to address a number of concerns and issues that have been raised from various sources,” said Dean Dietrich, the SLD’s representative, told the State Bar’s Board of Governors last year. “It was presented and debated at length by the Senior Lawyers Division, and was approved.”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Feb. 24 held a public hearing on the petition. Kastner and Dietrich presented the petition, on behalf of the State Bar.
Only the Board of Bar Examiners formally opposed the petition. In its final order, the supreme court approved the petition, with minor technical modifications.
 Under SCR 31.01(12), a “qualified pro bono program” means: (a) a pro bono program operated by a nonprofit legal services organization that receives funding from the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation; (b) a pro bono program operated by a Wisconsin law school; (c) a pro bono program existing on the date that this rule is adopted that is operated by a Wisconsin bar association; or (d) a program approved by the board as a qualified pro bono program.