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State Bar board proposes dues increase — the first
since 1999

Bar dues will go up next year if the legislature approves a bill that will boost the fee for active members by $5 and inactive members by $85. Under AB 1529, authored by Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, California’s 42,000 inactive lawyers would see their fee go up 170 percent — from $50, where it has languished since 1985, to $135.

Dues for the 148,000 active members would go from $390 to $395 a year, with the extra money going to the Client Security Fund, which reimburses clients up to $50,000 when their lawyers steal from them.

If the increases get the green light from state legislators, who must authorize the level of dues, bar officials estimate an extra $3 million in revenue will be generated for the general fund.

Without a dues increase, said Anthony Williams, the bar’s director of governmental affairs, the organization faces a $2.7 million deficit by the end of 2006. That shortfall would grow to more than $10 million by 2008, wiping out the bar’s public protection reserve.

The reaction among lawmakers “has been mixed,” Williams said. “Clearly, it is a comparatively large increase for inactive lawyers, but others have expressed the fact that the dues have been at a relatively low level for a number of years, so they are not surprised by the proposed increase.”

The measure also would change the rules governing scaled dues, available to attorneys who earn below a certain amount from the practice of law. The option of a 50 percent dues reduction for lawyers who earn less than $30,000 annually would be eliminated under the bill, and lawyers whose “total gross annual income from all sources” is below $40,000 would be eligible to reduce their dues by 25 percent. Changes in the scaling regulations would produce another $2.3 million in 2006 and 2007, officials said.

The bill also would eliminate the “sunset” provision that accompanies all fee measures and requires the bar to return to the legislature every year for a dues authorization. Bar officials have long sought to win multi-year fee bills; the proposal would require action in Sacramento only if the bar wants to increase its dues. President John Van de Kamp said the change would stabilize the bar’s funding and put it on even footing with other state regulatory and licensing agencies that have continuing authority to impose fees on their members.

Dues for active lawyers have remained flat since 1999. Both Van de Kamp and Williams said a dues increase is necessary to keep the bar afloat. In a March 1 letter to Jones, Williams wrote, “Once nearly the highest in the nation, California’s bar dues are currently 12th and falling — despite the fact that they support the only fully professional, statutorily mandated attorney discipline system in the nation. The bar also funds more programs mandated by court rule, statute or both, than any other bar in the nation.”

He also told Jones that if the sunset provision is eliminated, the bar still would remain accountable to the legislature and the governor since “the bar would be held to its existing resource level until a new bill is enacted to change the level of funding based on justified resource needs.”

Williams said the measure likely will get its first hearing before the Assembly Judiciary Committee this month.

At the same time the board of governors was looking for new money, it backpedaled on an effort to force disciplined lawyers to pay more of the costs of prosecution. A proposal to collect prosecutors’ fees was put on hold along with a suggestion that attorneys who are placed on involuntary inactive status pay the procedural costs associated with such a move.

Assistant chief trial counsel Don Steedman said the bar assesses about $1 million a year in discipline cost recovery, but gets back only about $400,000. “A lot of our customers are not able to pay us what they owe us, so our collection is never going to be what they owe us.” Steedman said the bar doesn’t collect costs for attorney fees, judges’ time or expert witnesses, but bases its collection efforts on the average cost of a given case.

Although the state auditor has criticized the bar in the past for not doing enough to recoup discipline costs, bar officials note that attorneys who are disciplined often face severe financial difficulty and are barely able to scratch out a living.

A couple of board members were unsympathetic to their plight. “We didn’t put these people there,” said Los Angeles governor Sheldon Sloan. “They put themselves there.”

The board did agree to seek legislation forcing disciplined attorneys to reimburse the bar for its costs as soon as the court order disciplining them becomes final. Currently, those lawyers don’t have to pay the costs until they are reinstated. The board also approved requiring out of state lawyers seeking reinstatement to come to California for depositions, and it voted to increase filing fees for those seeking reinstatement from $900 to $1,600.

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