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    President's Message: Exploring Mandatory Membership

    What membership status will address our profession’s challenges?

    Diane S. Diel

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 8, August 2008

    President's Message

    Exploring Mandatory Membership

    A respectful, informed discussion on the merits of membership status should focus on how best to address the challenges facing our profession.

Dielby Diane S. Diel

    I made an announcement in my swearing-in speech that surprised some people. I announced that I want to spend time this year exploring the issue of mandatory membership in the State Bar of Wisconsin. Let's take a good look at what members think of this bar association and the fact that to practice law in Wisconsin, you must be a member of the State Bar. Let's look at whether the State Bar should seek permission from the Wisconsin Supreme Court to become a voluntary bar association or whether we should remain a mandatory bar.

    How should this discussion be framed? Should we form the issue as "pro"-voluntary or "pro"-mandatory membership? Is that the question? The real underlying question is: What are the reasons to have a bar association at all and how can the bar association best advance those purposes?

    The State Bar exists because lawyers have a special duty to serve the public and the judiciary, maintain integrity and competence in the law, and assist members of the profession. Traditionally, all professionals care about and seek to serve the public and to maintain the public's trust in the profession. We share those public-spirited goals and ambitions with educators, psychologists, doctors, and many other professionals. As lawyers, we are unique as professionals because we alone are entrusted with serving in the highest positions in an entire branch of government _ the judiciary. To understand whether a voluntary or mandatory bar association is the best form for this organization, we must define clearly the organization's objectives.

    We come to this discussion at a time when major issues touch on our core responsibilities. The State Bar has answered the call to measure the shortfall in civil legal services with its Access to Justice study, and the Board of Governors has now petitioned the supreme court to form the Access to Justice Commission recommended in the study's report. It is hoped the court will grant the petition and authorize the formation of the commission as soon as possible. The commission would allow the State Bar to partner with all branches of government and with industry, business, and educational leaders to better marshal resources to meet the civil legal needs of people who cannot afford lawyers.

    This is also a time in which our judicial elections have become notorious. Can we as professionals be respected when judicial campaigns are conducted in a tawdry fashion? Can lawyers improve the public's understanding of the judiciary and improve the conduct of campaigns? Can lawyers who might reasonably disagree on outcomes of individual cases agree on a respectful, dignified process to ensure that the judges who hear those cases decide the cases on their merits and not on the basis of campaign contributions or a predetermined and announced agenda?

    Would these issues about access to justice or judicial campaigns be better addressed by a voluntary bar association or a mandatory association?

    I did not honestly think I would be addressing this issue in my term, After all, I've been there and done that. I participated in the study and debate on this issue by the Board of Governors in 1991. The record of that debate establishes that I voted for a voluntary bar in 1991. I knew as I voted on that day that the outcome of that debate would not affect my involvement in the bar association. But, clearly, this issue is crying out to be revisited and then brought to rest. Today, the only outcome that matters to me personally is that we make professionalism the point of this conversation.

    There isn't any organization in the world better equipped than we are to have those conversations. We can be trusted to conduct this discussion at a high level with respect and learning. If we understand the challenges faced by our profession, we will have the best means to shape an organization to address those challenges.

    In the end, we will either remain a mandatory-membership bar association or become a voluntary-membership bar association. Let's make sure we understand how best to continue to advance the profession either way.