Four bifurcated bars say how it works

Staff Writer


Although the ride has not always been smooth, those who have had experience with co-existing mandatory and voluntary bars say the division can be efficient and collegial.

"We periodically squabble, but generally we have a good relationship," said Breck Arrington of the voluntary Virginia Bar Association.

"My advice to California is to take all the responsibilities away from the mandatory bar except for the list of lawyers, discipline and the bar exam," said Rosie Small, executive director of the voluntary Bar Association of the District of Columbia.

And from North Carolina: "Our system works very nicely. There's a clear division," says Allan Head, executive director of the voluntary North Carolina Bar Association.

North Carolina and Virginia both split into mandatory and voluntary components in the 1930s.

Of the four entities, North Carolina is often mentioned as a model for the rest of the nation because of its successful voluntary bar, with membership running at about 80 percent of the state's licensed lawyers.

Head sees nothing unusual about those numbers, claiming that the secret to the bar's success is simply that it provides services to its members.

"We're a major CLE provider," says Head, "and we give our members a discount which helps drive our membership." The North Carolina Bar Association, which will celebrate its centennial in 1999, also offers 25 practice sections, four divisions (seniors, young lawyers, legal assistants and law students) and 30 committees.

In addition, the voluntary group offers perks such as health insurance, telephone service discounts, two cruises a year with CLE credit and scholarships.

The mandatory North Carolina State Bar is involved in licensing, discipline, MCLE and a client security fund, with members of the governing bar council elected by district.

"Generally speaking, nothing is or should be done at the State Bar unless it is rationally related to the administration of justice and protective of the public interest," writes L. Thomas Lunsford, director of the mandatory North Carolina State Bar in a recent bar publication.

"This is the genius of the North Carolina arrangement. Since membership in the bar association is voluntary and tax money is not involved in its support, the organization is totally free to act politically and programmatically. It is accountable only to its members," he wrote.

Arrington of the Virginia Bar Association is amazed that the unified California bar has lasted as long as it has. It's like getting apples and oranges mixed up, he says, when there are some clear differences.

His organization offers "some fairly intangible" benefits like public service, law reform, collegiality and professionalism.

Membership usually makes up about one-third of the state's licensed lawyers, he said, but the numbers grow slowly. Whether for lack of time or interest, Arrington regrets that "fewer lawyers are interested in the altruistic."

The Virginia Bar Association, however, does have an active legislation program, supports legal aid, promotes the judiciary and offers the services of a law practice management consultant.

A clear division of functions appears to be the key to the country's successful co-existing bars.

The voluntary Bar Association of the District of Columbia reigned in the district until the early 1970s when a unified bar was organized "with all the usual powers," said Cynthia Kuhn, manager of communications for the mandatory District of Columbia Bar.

Today, the District of Columbia Bar has very specific rules regarding the allocation of members' dues. Dues may only be used in areas such as the admission and registration of members, discipline (including counseling), the client security fund and communication with members.

Lobbying for a specific piece of legislation can only occur with the approval of the bar's members, said Kuhn. Lawyers either vote by mail or at a special meeting requiring 100 members for a quorum.

Any pro bono activities are funded through additional voluntary contributions and grants. Continuing education is funded by program fees, as are law practice sections.

Constance Belfiore, current president of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, also stresses the importance of a clear division of functions.

The two D.C. bars "have an evolving relationship that's not fully settled," she said, and occasionally the roles of the two have to be refined.

"My advice is to make it quite clear, in establishing a voluntary bar, what a voluntary bar could get into and what a mandatory bar has to do," she said. "For instance, lobbying should be in the voluntary bar, with [California's] history."

In addition, "to coordinate, facilitate and iron out potential problems," Belfiore advises California bar leaders to establish representatives or liaisons on both bars.

Professor Forest Bowman of the West Virginia University College of Law is the current president of the voluntary bar in his state and agrees that a clean distinction between the two groups must be made right away.

"It's helpful if the distinction is clear," he said, "like the North Carolina approach." Bowman, who also has served as executive director of the mandatory West Virginia State Bar, says that although both bars in his state have a good relationship, there are many areas where they overlap or compete and "my [voluntary] bar has a struggle to survive."

Toward that end, the new executive director of the voluntary bar association, John Adler, is about to embark upon a major recruiting effort and hopes to head the organization in the direction of providing services that will impact the day-to-day practice of each lawyer.

Thomas Tinder, executive director of the state's mandatory bar, doesn't sense the competition that Bowman does, saying it appears more intense in other states.

His agency handles attorney discipline and has an arrangement with the state's sole law school to provide MCLE programs. They do their best to steer clear of political issues, he says. "We don't get involved. We follow the [California] Keller case guidelines to the 'T'."

Indeed, all eyes have been on California, says Lunsford of the North Carolina State Bar. "We are exceedingly mindful of what's going on in California," he said. "If anything, the experience in California has reinforced the situation we've got."