To be active or inactive? It's quite a quandary

by Kathleen O. Beitiks
Staff Writer

It may not be the most pressing of life's problems, but the decision to remain active or change to inactive status on the State Bar's membership roll has some attorneys in a quandary.

Elyse Cotant, manager of the bar's member services and information, says there is often confusion about the different categories of membership and her office mails out about 6,000 packets a year explaining the details.

There are currently about 155,000 members of the State Bar, says Cotant, with about 33,000 listed as inactive. Of that number, about 50 percent do not reside in California.

Most active attorneys pay annual State Bar dues of $458, while those who choose to go on inactive status pay $50.

"The major reason for going on inactive status is because a lawyer is practicing in another state," says Cotant. The majority of the other half go on inactive status when they retire.

Choosing to go inactive may have significant consequences, says Cotant, and the decision should not be taken lightly. For example, inactive status:

Inactive members do continue to be eligible for appointment to Board of Governors' committees and participation in State Bar-sponsored insurance and health care programs. They also can transfer back to active status at any time.

Many attorneys retire earlier than 70, says Cotant, but of the total listed as inactive on the bar's membership rolls, about 15 percent are over the age of 70. Thirty-three percent of inactive attorneys are California residents over 70.

One of the perks of being over 70 and on inactive status is that the bar waives the annual $50 fee. "It's a courtesy," says Cotant, "but we don't waive fees if the attorney is active."

Why would someone who does not plan to practice law in the state opt to continue their membership in the bar?

Some work in other fields, but want to keep in touch with the profession, says Cotant. On the bar's membership roll are teachers, writers, farmers and even a member who breeds Arabian horses. And it's not unusual to hear of inactive members who are living in Europe for an extended period of time or who have opted to spend a few years sailing around the world.

"However," said Cotant, "most of the members I talk to are really proud of their profession and want to maintain a relationship." For some, there's also the benefit of remaining on professional mailing lists, keeping abreast of legal developments.

In many instances, an attorney who decides to go inactive finds that he or she needs to do a little legal work on a personal or family matter. It is much easier to re-activate membership as an inactive member rather than from a resigned status.

Doing any legal work requires an active membership, says Cotant, even if the work does not necessarily involve court appearances.

Retired attorneys who find they have the time and inclination to do some pro bono legal work may not do so as an inactive attorney. However, enrolling as a member of the State Bar's emeritus attorney program allows retired attorneys to provide free legal advice on a pro bono basis, with the $458 active membership dues waived by the bar.