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Membership in the bar: Priceless

James E. Herman 2002-03 President State Bar of California

President, State Bar of California

John Milton, Al Pacino's monstrous senior partner * in the film The Devil's Advocate, described the license to practice law as "the greatest backstage pass in history." Our license, however, brings us not only opportunity but responsibility. Meaningful access to the courts means access to a lawyer. We gatekeepers to the third branch are custodians of a public trust.

It's dues time again. This year, your license will cost $390. By contrast, you paid $440 in 1990, $478 from 1992 through 1996 and $458 in 1997. What other cost in your life has gone down as significantly?

For four years, we have kept dues at or below $390. In 2001, we passed on personnel cost savings to the membership through a one-time $40 dues reduction to $345. We have been good stewards.

California dues rank eighth among the 50 state bars. However, because of the wide variations in bar functions, rankings do not tell the complete story. California is a unified bar providing both discipline and member services. Non-unified state bars only oversee regulation and discipline or only provide member services. California is sometimes compared unfavorably to the New York State Bar Association, a voluntary trade association, with dues at $150 per year. But New York lawyers also pay separately for regulation and discipline by their courts. Combined, New York's dues and fees exceed California's. The ABA and even the People's Republic of China charges lawyers higher dues than the State Bar of California.

The State Bar oversees the only fully professional lawyer discipline system in the United States. Mandated by the legislature responding in the late '80s to complaints of cronyism and case backlogs, our professional discipline system is much more costly than the old volunteer system. Dues went from $200 per member to $440 the year of the changeover. This greater cost coupled with our higher cost of living has pushed California artificially toward the upper range of the list.

Of your $390 in dues, the legislature mandates per member:

  • Up to $310 covering administration, member benefits, discipline and other regulatory functions (See Bus. & Prof. Code §6140 et seq.);
  • $35 toward the client security fund reimbursing up to $50,000 to clients who have been ripped off by our few bad apples;
  • $25 toward the discipline system augmentation fund;
  • $10 toward the Lawyer Assistance Program, a substance abuse treatment program;
  • and $10 toward the building fund.

Combined, about 68 percent of your dues dollars supports the State Bar Court and the Office of the Chief Trial Counsel. Eighty percent, or $304, of your dues pays for combined regulation, discipline, professional responsibility and other mandated functions.

With dues ranging from $78 to $395 over the last six years, there are also a number of trends affecting our long-term financial health. Membership is increasing at a lower rate than pre-veto. Increasingly, members through dues scaling are paying less than the full dues amount. With personnel costs at 80 percent of our budget, employee benefits, especially insurance and employer retirement contributions, have risen significantly. We are 12 percent understaffed and unable to increase employee salaries. Absent increased revenues including from non-dues sources, financial crisis is only a few years away.

So what do you get for your $390 annual dues? I can't begin to describe all the bar does for members and the public: The JNE Commission, the LAP program, our bar publications including the Bar Journal, consumer pamphlets, "Kids & the Law" and "When You Become 18," the Office of Legal Specialization, our ethics opinions and ethics hotline, continuing legal education, special masters to handle the affairs of disabled lawyers, our committees, commissions and taskforces supporting your practice and the profession, and our State Bar website at Through the website, access our low cost insurance programs, free research, our new Westlaw program and links to courts, bar associations and the legislature. We are working hard to make the website a powerful tool linking all of our 190,000 members.

Although voluntarily funded, we cannot forget our sections, access committees and the Founda-tion of the State Bar.

But isn't our greatest member benefit practicing in a well-regulated profession dedicated to ethical practice, public protection and our mission "to preserve and improve the justice system and ensure a fair and just society under the law?" ** When I am out on the road, our members seem to think our backstage pass is a good deal.

Price for your first desk? $2,000. Price for court attire? $400. Price for your first briefcase? $200. Membership in the State Bar of California? Priceless.

* Most partners agree this character is entirely fictional. Associates tend to have a different view but they will change their minds when they become partners and partners don't listen to them on this score anyway.

** Look for the mission statement on your bar card.

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