California Bar Journal
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Spending dues responsibly, not on a whim
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James E. Herman
James E. Herman

According to Tony Girling, the former president of the Law Society of England, "The law firm of the future will consist of a computer, a lawyer and a dog. The computer is there to do the legal work.  The dog is there to keep the lawyer away from the computer. The lawyer is there to feed the dog." 

This is a future we need to avoid - the ultimate unauthorized practice of law.

Spotting the trends and influences affecting the members of our profession is on the agenda of the board of governors as part of our recently adopted annual planning cycle and strategic plan. 

So why should you as a member care about an annual planning cycle and the strategic plan? 

Because the budget - how your dues will get spent - is part of the planning cycle. One of the most common complaints I hear from you, the members, is over the amount of bar dues you have to pay coupled with the feeling you are not getting much for your money except a magazine. Er, actually, you don't even get a magazine - The Daily Journal Corporation publishes the slick magazine as California Lawyer. The State Bar publishes the California Bar Journal in newsprint tabloid form.

As many of you may not know, most of your dues dollar is committed to programs unrelated to member services. For example, of your $385 in dues, $306 are committed to the operation of the discipline system (admissions is funded entirely out of application fees), $35 are committed to the Client Security Fund and $10 are mandated by the legislature to support the Attorney Diversion and Assistance Program. All other State Bar operations including member services are paid out of the remaining $34 of your dues payment. And you actually get a lot for this 34 bucks: See member benefits on the website at for the details. Part of our job is to increase member services for the 34 bucks.

Budgeting, as part of our annual planning process, asks a few simple questions about both existing and proposed programs. Does the program promote the State Bar's mission to "improve our justice system and insure a free and just society under the law," keeping in mind that spending of members' mandatory dues is narrowly limited by the legislature and court opinions? What are the fiscal and resources impacts of any program? What other programs will be replaced by any new program?

We see this approach as responsible stewardship of your dues dollars. The goal is to keep your dues as low as possible. 

This does not mean that your dues will not increase. The bar, just as the rest of the public and private sector, is vulnerable to economic downturn, increased costs, mandated program increases and additions as well as general cost of living increases. Last year, for example, we passed on a one-time savings from unfilled staff positions to the membership, thereby reducing dues by $45. This year, because we are fully staffed, we raised the dues back up again, but we are still below the legislative ceiling set several years ago.

It does mean your dues dollars will not be spent on a whim of the board of governors or bar staff.

And trends analysis as part of strategic planning? Let's talk about two trends we are looking at: changing demographics and the practice of law by non-lawyers.

A recently completed survey by the bar shows that although the majority of the population is of color and female, the State Bar membership is majority non-Latino white male. What effect does this dissonance have on access and quality of justice? Better yet, what does it mean to you as a member, irrespective of your personal demographics, if the majority of your clients is non-white or female? How will it affect your marketing strategies? How will it affect your bottom line? These demographic changes will affect the practice of law well into this century.

Unauthorized practice of law is on every member's radar. This is not because of loss of business - most cases handled by non-lawyer practitioners are too small for lawyers to be interested in - but because consumers are not being well served. We all have horror stories of the document service client who files a bankruptcy petition to stop an unlawful detainer.

Interestingly, however, the problem is not unauthorized practice but authorized practice by non- lawyers. Document and immigration services are statutorily authorized. Trust mills are tolerated. Non-lawyers (including paralegals, defrocked stock brokers and disbarred lawyers) are tacitly allowed to represent customers in NASD arbitrations. And what about title companies, escrow companies and real estate agents? All are lawyer practice areas east of the Mississippi but not in California. CPAs may practice before the US Tax Court and they otherwise practice law on a daily basis. H&R Block? A document service also dispensing complex tax planning advice all over the country. Multidisciplinary practice? It's already here on a de facto basis. Just check any of the Big Five (soon to be Big Four) accounting firms. Multijurisdictional practice? The Supreme Court has recently authorized a minor expansion of certification for lawyers not licensed in California practicing as legal services lawyers or general counsel. But our neighbors in Oregon, Washington, Utah, Nevada and Idaho are working on a multi-state bar license, which will substantially open market areas for their lawyers. 

Ironically, the only statutory definition of the practice of law in California is found not in a statute relating to lawyers but in a statute defining independent paralegals. 

As lawyers we need to be at the table to address these pressures on the profession. And in another way, we need to get serious about access to justice. Many of these non-lawyer practitioners thrive because people are not otherwise able to obtain legal services. Fortunately, family court mediators and self-represented litigant programs as well as legal aid and pro bono assistance provide some relief. But as lawyers, we need to look both at protecting the consumer and providing access.

At our annual planning meeting May 3-4, we will be hearing from members and constituent groups on these and many other issues.

In the meantime, keep your computer but sell that dog!

Santa Barbara attorney James E. Herman represents District 6 on the State Bar Board of Governors.