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  • October 28, 2021

    New Emeritus Rules Reflect Our Changing Profession

    What are the changes in the Emeritus status for senior lawyers? Michael May talks about the changes, who they apply to, and why he believes they were necessary.

    Michael P. May

    When I became a member of the Senior Lawyers Division (SLD) board of directors in 2019, I assumed I was joining a group of sleepy older lawyers, who spent most of their time telling war stories.

    I was so wrong.

    About Emeritus Status

    In case you have not looked at the changes to the Emeritus status rules in a while, here is an article from the State Bar’s WisBar News that describes the changes, and provides links to the Supreme Court’s Order and other relevant documents.

    Michael P. May Michael P. May, U.W. 1979, is senior counsel at Boardman & Clark, LLP, in Madison, where he chairs the firm’s local government law practice group and is a member of the litigation group. He previously served as Madison city attorney.

    When I joined the SLD board, the changes to the Emeritus status rules for practicing law were then just being discussed, and the proposals brought heated discussion to the SLD board. Some members thought the proposals were a slap in the face to older lawyers. Some members were disgusted by the procedure the State Bar employed in considering the changes. Other board members thought the changes were reasonable, and were coming in some form in any event, so the SLD board should attempt to mold them as best we could.

    Some of us, including me, thought all of those things at different times.

    Now, upon reflection, I conclude that the changes were inevitable because of the changes to the way we practice law today.

    Status Definition Changes

    One major change in the rules is that the use of the term “Emeritus” is for lawyers over age 70 who have retired from the practice of law in Wisconsin other than pro bono service, as provided in SCR 10.03(3)(am). Those who choose the title “Emeritus” are inactive members of the State Bar.

    This change brings the use of the term “Emeritus” back to its more accepted meaning: a person who has retired and has both earned and chosen to use the term as an honorific title after ending their active professional career.

    The rules also effectively changed what was considered Emeritus status to 75 years of age, rather than the former rule of 70 years. Lawyers 75 years of age or older who are still practicing will be called “Senior Active” attorneys (with legacy status granted for lawyers who gained Emeritus status under the old rules – before July 1, 2021).

    Back when the rules were adopted in the 1970s, age 70 was likely the time most lawyers retired or were close to retirement. But as they say, “75 is the new 70.” Many more lawyers continue to practice well into their 70s.

    CLE Credit Requirement for Those Still Practicing

    Another major change to the old rule was that Emeritus lawyers (over age 70) need not take CLE credit programs or pay State Bar dues. Now, at age 75, those requirements are relaxed for Senior Active lawyers, but not eliminated. This not only reflects the continuing activity of older lawyers, it also reflects an expanded view that we all must maintain competency if we are to practice law.

    In my opinion, the rule changes also reflect the changing demographics of the profession. A large cohort of older lawyers are nearing retirement, and there are fewer younger lawyers in the Bar. Those younger lawyers rightly asked why the old folks didn’t have to maintain their CLE credits or support the Bar through dues payments. Nobody ever suggested that a reason for the rules was to help the State Bar’s budget, but some members of the SLD viewed that as an unspoken purpose of the new rules.

    Other Changes

    What else has changed in the practice since the Emeritus rules were first adopted over 40 years ago?

    You all remember using the internet and sending emails in the 1980s, right? Electronic filing of court documents just started in the last decade. We all carry a mini computer called a cell phone, and clients expect us to answer it when they call. The practice of law is much faster and being challenged by non-legal entities.

    All of these changes highlight the need for older lawyers to remain knowledgeable.

    What Do You Think?

    Not all senior lawyers will agree with me, but I now believe that the changes to the Emeritus rules were reasonable and necessary, to reflect the changing nature of the legal profession in Wisconsin.

    New Membership Classifications

    Status Practice Restrictions CLE Requirements Financial Obligation
    Existing Emeritus 70+ (election before July 1, 2021)NoneNoneNone, other than the need to pay the Client Protection Fund assessment (currently $25)
    New Emeritus 70+ (election on or after July 1, 2021)No legal practice permitted except for pro bono through qualified pro bono programsNoneNone, other than the need to pay the Client Protection Fund assessment (currently $25)​
    Active Up to 75None30 CLE credits every two-year reporting periodFull Dues; Full Supreme Court Assessments
    Senior Active 75+None15 CLE credits every two-year reporting periodHalf State Bar Dues; Half Supreme Court Assessments

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin Senior Lawyers Division Blog of Experience. Visit the State Bar Divisions page or the Senior Lawyers Division webpage to learn more about division membership.

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    Senior Lawyers Division Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Michael May and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Senior Lawyers Division or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2023 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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