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New member benefits at CalBar Connect

The State Bar launched a new members-only Web site last month, CalBar Connect, for attorneys to link to affinity partners who are offering value-added products to California lawyers. The affinity program is part of the bar’s member services and benefits initiative that is expected to produce non-dues revenue to support member services and the Lawyer Assistance Program.

The CalBarConnect link (calbar.ca.gov/calbarconnect/), connects directly to the partners, the products offered and to other State Bar member services and benefits. The bar has contracted with major providers of financial services, insurance programs, office supplies, package delivery and apparel:

  • The financial partner, Bank of America, will offer a full range of products, including consumer and business credit cards, debit cards, lines of credit, mortgage loans, small business banking and other merchant services. The bank also brought its lawyer trust accounts into early compliance with new state regulations that require banks holding IOLTA accounts to offer an interest rate comparable with interest rates offered on other consumer products.
  • Insurance partners include Marsh Affinity, Liberty Mutual and AI&PS, who offer products including professional liability, life, AD&D, business, auto, home, disability and long term care insurance.
  • UPS, Office Max and Brooks Brothers will offer discounts to members.

“The bar has taken a number of steps to keep dues low in recent years and the member services initiative, offering attorneys benefits and services that generate non-dues revenue, is a key part of that strategy,” said executive director Judy Johnson. “This is a win-win initiative.”

Improved services to bar members has been on the State Bar’s agenda since 2000, when the organization returned to full operation following Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1997 dues bill veto and subsequent shutdown. At that time, both the legislature and the Supreme Court demanded that the bar pursue strategic planning and improved governance and demonstrate accountability to its members.

In 1997, California’s bar dues — $458 — were among the highest in the country. They have remained at the same level — $400 — since 2001, removing the bar from the dubious distinction of number one and moving it out of the top 10.

In 2002, the legislature enacted a statute creating the Lawyers Assistance Program. Ten dollars of every attorney’s annual dues is used to underwrite the effort to help lawyers with addiction or mental health issues. The fee generates about $1.5 million a year. The statute also authorized the bar to redirect that money if alternative sources of income generate enough dollars to fund the LAP.

As a result, the bar expanded existing insurance programs that now generate sufficient income to meet the $10 LAP requirement. In addition, the program supports a member services center, whose staff assists members with questions or problems related to compliance, benefits, fee payment or other issues.

Prior to the creation of the toll-free number two years ago, the bar did not offer a centralized number for members to call.

Starr Babcock, the bar’s point man on member services, says the bottom line for the new programs is paying for the Lawyer Assistance Program and the member call center.

An affinity program, he said, “is not a new idea. Lots of other bars do it. But our financial leverage is greater because we’re the largest integrated bar in the country.”

As an example of that leverage, Babcock cited the bar’s recent agreement with Bank of America, which agreed to comply early with a new law requiring banks to offer interest rates on lawyer trust accounts that are comparable with the rates offered on similar customer accounts. The deal is expected to generate significant revenue for the state’s legal services programs.

In addition, BofA signed on as an affinity partner with the bar, offering credit, debit, loans, mortgage products and merchant services to bar members at competitive rates. Marketing for the products will be done through the bar’s Web site under the new CalBar Connect brand.

Babcock said concerns about whether an affinity program falls within the bar’s mission are unfounded. “The board has directed the staff to pursue member benefits and programs,” he said. “We’re following the model of what other states have done and we’re following legislative authority under two statutes to fund member benefits without raising mandatory dues.”

He said the bar will monitor the programs through oversight committees whose members are experts in the fields of insurance programs and products and financial services. The committees will provide an oversight mechanism for private vendors and advocate on behalf of members.

The bar’s regulatory functions should be funded by member dues, Babcock said, and “to the extent we want to provide member services, they’ll be funded from non-dues revenue.”

Babcock acknowledged that insurance products “are not necessarily the cheapest,” but the bar sponsors “a stable product that we can oversee and that the member can buy with confidence.”

As the program gets rolling, an affinity marketing firm hired by the bar will assist in customizing programs to target particular demographic groups, marketing and adding new partners.

Bar efforts to move many of its initiatives online will be bolstered this year by an anticipated Supreme Court rule requiring all members to register with the bar online and provide an e-mail address. Dues payment, address changes, IOLTA compliance and other regulatory requirements must be completed electronically under the proposed rule.

Future electronic initiatives include an attorney job board, a social network, automated MCLE compliance and a “Find-a-Lawyer” option.

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