Pondering the plebiscite

Looking at the spring ballot without the rhetoric of the zealots leads to 14 points about the bar upon which to base a vote


In an effort to assimilate all the information regarding the upcoming vote on SB 60, I reviewed many articles written on the issue of a mandatory State Bar and wondered what new information or point of view I could offer that already has not been covered.

I came to the conclusion that, perhaps, I could communicate some salient facts and figures without the rhetoric of the pro and con zealots.

Lest you think that I am just another "bar junkie" sent forth to promote the State Bar, I will tell you that I am a member of the board of directors of the California Young Lawyers Association, which is, in fact, a State Bar organization.

However, this article is not written on behalf of the CYLA, but is merely my personal understanding of the issues that I as a young member of the legal profession am being asked to decide.

According to Webster, the term plebiscite, (plebiscite), plebs, common people + scitum, decree <to decree> means: (1) A direct vote in which the entire electorate can accept or refuse the measure, program or government of the person or party initiating the consultation; (2) A consultation whereby a population exercises its right of national self-determination.

Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), has initiated such a consultation, SB 60, which by its very language challenges the necessity of a mandatory State Bar as the regulatory agency governing California attorneys.

It further states that the regulatory functions of the State Bar be turned "over to another body or bodies . . ."

The response to SB 60 is to be reported to the legislature by July 1; thus, the ballots are scheduled to be mailed in May, whereby lawyers will be exercising their right of self-determination vis-a-vis SB 60.

It is important to note that SB 60 is merely advisory in nature and further legislation, an initiative, would be required to dissolve the State Bar.

It appears that the issues are twofold: first, a philosophical query regarding a lawyer's right to freely associate and, second, a dollars-and-cents argument: What are the dues we pay to the State Bar doing for each and every lawyer in California?

Points to consider

Here are some facts and figures to assist you in addressing SB 60 and the issues it raises:

1. The State Bar was established in 1927 and has been the sole regulatory agency for lawyers in California.

2. State Bar dues of $478 for attorneys practicing three or more years have been frozen since 1991 and are anticipated to be reduced in 1997 by $20. This will be the first fee reduction in the history of the State Bar.

3. California has the highest dues in the nation but when compared to other professions, such as doctors, who pay dues to at least two separate organizations, the dues lawyers pay are substantially less.

4. California currently has more than 120,000 active members, one of the largest memberships in the nation.

5. Thirty-two states currently have mandatory bars.

6. According to the 1995 State Bar general fund budget printed in What Every Attorney Should Know About State Bar Fees, Services & Benefits, dues are apportioned as follows:

7. The State Bar, with a special assessment of $10 per year, will be able to consolidate its three offices in San Francisco to one location, an estimated savings of $10 million over the next 10 years.

8. In response to its members' concerns regarding rising costs, the bar since 1993 has been able to reduce the annual budget by $4 million.

9. The State Bar is an active lobbyist on behalf of lawyers. Twenty-one bills sponsored by the State Bar were guided successfully through the recent legislative process, which, according to bar lobbyists, is above average. For example, the bar played a significant role in SB 513 which has been called "landmark legislation to permit attorneys and accountants to form limited liability partnerships."

10. If the State Bar is abolished, SB 60 does not specify who will regulate attorneys in California. With or without a mandatory bar, there will be a disciplinary function and a cost will be borne by lawyers.

11. If the State Bar is abolished, SB 60 does not state if lawyers will be asked to pay more or less in dues.

12. The majority of bar dues is spent on the disciplinary system - approximately $300 of the $478.

13. The State Bar is perceived by its own membership as distant and non-responsive to the needs of attorneys and considered by many to treat its members with disrespect and in an adversarial manner.

14. Other states such as Illinois, with smaller memberships, have voluntary bars with regulatory functions handled by the Supreme Court. The California Supreme Court has advised the Futures Commission that it will not take over the administration and discipline functions of the State Bar.

Come summer, we will have our answer to SB 60's query: Should the State Bar be abolished?