Letís stop pouring money into a pit

by Stephen E. Barnett

Not since the Wall came down have the sounds of an empire crumbling been as unmistakable as those emerging these days from the beleaguered bunker of the State Bar. Or as welcome.

Gov. Wilson got it right: the bar is "bloated, arrogant, oblivious and unresponsive." And as soon as members say so, "the bar has promptly done its best to verify each indictment."

The latest proof, as I write, is the midnight raise for more than 70 bar managers disclosed in late October just as the bar was claiming it could be broke by February.

The barís new executive director, Steven Nissen, who took office Nov. 1, did rescind the raises, but not before the barís openhanded ineptness was again on display.

The bar president and most bar governors apparently still donít get it, as they scramble to do business as usual by getting a fee bill at any cost.

It isnít worth it. Wilsonís veto, with his damning of the barís political positions, has shown for all time that the bar as now constituted is fatally schizophrenic.

It canít be both a public regulatory body, dependent on the legislature and governor for the power to tax, and a professional association that lobbies on behalf of lawyers. As soon as it takes positions that the legislature or governor doesnít like, the bar is broke.

As Wilson said, the bar ó if continued in mandatory form at all ó should be reduced to basics: admissions, discipline and (Iím not sure why) education.

How to get our "bar leaders" out of denial? It will help to toss ó as if most members wouldnít ó the letters weíre due to get from the bar begging for voluntary payment of the "full dues" of $458 per year. That wonít be dues but charity, a higher amount than any the legislature is likely to authorize.

And what about the "200 biggest firms" whose managing partners apparently will get special "peer pressure" letters asking payment of the wished-for amount? And the public agencies being pushed to contribute taxpayer money to the bar?

Why would taxpayers want to see their money poured into this pit? And arenít there some lawyers in those large firms whoíll balk at letting a bar-junkie partner commandeer the firm, and who may want to think about whether charity to the bar in its present form ó with their money ó is really the best thing for Californiaís legal profession?

Nor is it enough to strip the bar down to Wilsonís three basic functions. Continuing legal education doesnít need to be mandatory, or done by the bar. And "discipline" shouldnít take its present gold-plated form.

High-priced CEOs are supposed to know how to cut costs. Cut the dues at least in half, and let Mr. Nissen, at a salary of $200,000 per year, earn his handsome keep.

Stephen E. Barnett is a professor of law at UC Berkeleyís Boalt Hall and an active member of the State Bar.