Wisconsin Lawyer: Inside the Bar: Committee Dissolution:

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    Inside the Bar: Committee Dissolution

    When a committee no longer serves its intended purpose, it can be dissolved, and that's what happened to the Group and Prepaid Legal Services Committee.

    George Brown

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 2, February 2008

    Inside the Bar

    Committee Dissolution

    When a committee no longer serves its intended purpose, it can be dissolved, and that's what happened to the Group and Prepaid Legal Services Committee.

    by George C. Brown,
    State Bar executive director

    George Brown

    At the December 2007 meeting of the State Bar Board of Governors, an action took place that almost never happens in an association. A long-standing committee of the State Bar requested approval from the Board to be disbanded. It did so because it realized that it no longer performed a function useful to Wisconsin lawyers or the public.

    Back in the 1970s, a method of providing access to legal services spread from Europe to the United States and Wisconsin - group and prepaid legal services plans. These plans emerged largely as an employee benefit in unionized workplaces, such as automobile factories. Because there was a concern that some of these new plans might not be well run, the Wisconsin Supreme Court granted the State Bar's request to require that these plans be nonprofit, that they be registered with the State Bar, and that lawyers report annually to the Bar on their work for such plans. At that time, most plans in this state were being set up and run by Wisconsin lawyers. The Group and Prepaid Legal Services Committee was formed to review these annual filings to ensure that the lawyers registered with the plan were properly licensed and that the plan providers were operating within the law.

    As time passed, enthusiasm for these plans waned and although the committee continued to operate, its work became something of a routine task. In the early 1990s, Congress removed the pretax benefit that previously had been granted to such plans, and enthusiasm for the plans waned even further. And then came the Internet.

    The development and expansion of the Internet created the opportunity for new business models and eliminated many companies that used traditional methods to provide information. Group and prepaid legal service plans were among the businesses that underwent significant change. Many of the plans available to the public were no longer just available through the workplace. The Internet and direct marketing provided inexpensive ways for plans to sign up new members. For-profit plans began to be available both to lawyers as providers and to the public as potential clients. Many of these plans were headquartered outside Wisconsin and were not aware of the old nonprofit and registration requirements. Wisconsin lawyers who served as providers to these plans were unwittingly violating the rules simply by being a provider. Concurrently, over these same years, Wisconsin's consumer protection laws and their enforcement through both the Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection were steadily improving.

    As it became increasingly aware of these various developments, the State Bar's Group and Prepaid Legal Services Committee struggled with how to respond. Should it more proactively try to enforce rules that gave it no enforcement authority, actively search out these providers and educate them, or should it seek a change in the rules to accommodate the new reality of how lawyers and plans were operating? Finally, about a year ago, the committee stepped back from the details, looked at the situation from afar, reviewed the current consumer protection laws, and concluded that supreme court rules governing the plans were now antiquated, that there were sufficient consumer protection laws in place to protect the public, and that the rules and the work of the committee were no longer needed, were redundant, and were an unnecessary burden to lawyers and the plan providers while delivering no additional benefit to the consumer. Upon review, the Board of Governors agreed with the committee's assessment, as did the supreme court, and the rules were modified to eliminate the registration and reporting requirements. The committee no longer had a purpose, and, instead of searching for a mission where there was none, the members asked the Board of Governors to dissolve the committee. The Board unanimously agreed, and the committee ceased to exist.