So last week a young Washington State lawyer tells God and everyone else on a listserv that he’s tossing his shingle into the sock drawer and moving on — all because he can’t afford his annual bar dues.
Seems a tad drastic after spending so much time, sweat, and treasure to become a lawyer. But then, understandable when expenses keep overtaking income and the Sisyphean boulder doesn’t stop rolling back down the hill.
Ironically enough, his move comes even after lawyers in his jurisdiction saw fit to vote to cut their bar association dues from $480 to $325. This was no easy feat either — even though the usual crony cast of insiders, stakeholders, apologists and true believers gnashed their gums in disbelief and dismay.
“We’re all sitting here just going “Wow,’” said one bar association program manager. And according to one report, the reduction amounts to $3.6M or 25% of the bar’s budget. “Oh the humanity!”
And so the hand wringing went on, even after spinning the news coverage over how “fewer than half of eligible lawyers voted . . . and by a slim majority – 52 percent -” voted to reduce their dues. And the point?
After all, the referendum election did garner 12,339 participants or about 44% of all lawyers in the state and of that number, 6,416 lawyers or roughly one-fifth of all Washington State Bar Association lawyers voted “YES” to roll back dues. U.S. Presidents win popular elections by margins less than that.
But poll-spinning isn’t an art form limited to politicians. Last November, for example, the Arizona Bar’s sock puppet, Arizona Attorney Magazine, ran a front page story “We’re Happy,” citing how happy and satisfied Arizona lawyers were — based on survey responses from barely 4% of its 17,200 active members. That thin reed was deemed front-page news — even though not long before the economy really cratered, a survey by the American Bar Association belied the Arizona Attorney magazine’s hallelujahs. Almost half of the lawyers surveyed by the ABA reported career dissatisfaction and only 4 in 10 lawyers would recommend a legal career to others.
A dinghy of exemption.
So you’d think one lawyer throwing in the towel would hardly be news. And even though under WSBA Bylaw Article III, Section H.5., Washington lawyers can apply for one-time hardship exemptions in case of “proven extreme financial hardship.”
But when prospects haven’t been good for a while, a one-time exemption is a rubber dinghy in a vast troubled sea.
Indeed, up until the April 2012 rollback referendum and the dues reduction effective January 17, 2013, Washington enjoyed the dubious distinction of being 8th highest on the list of “Ranking By Cost to Practice in Each State.”
As a matter of fact, in proponents’ Statement for the Referendum – Washington State Bar Association, the rationale was explained, “The dues rollback referendum was started because mandatory annual fees imposed upon Washington lawyers exceed those charged to lawyers in most other states. In addition, the WSBA is making inefficient use of money and is not being totally open with members about where the money goes.
“Our Board increased fees when an economic crisis was underway, despite hardships of members who are unable to find professional work and struggling with student loans and mortgages.”
“Let them eat cake!”
Added one Bellevue, Washington solo practitioner, “Sixty percent of the lawyers in Washington are solo practitioners who aren’t making big bucks. It doesn’t seem as if the bar really took the cries of their members seriously. We were saying, `We need you to tighten your belt, and you’re telling us no.’”
But then invoking my favorite aphorist, François de La Rochefoucauld, state bars “all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.”
But Washington was only 8th highest. As of 2010, ahead of “The Evergreen State” on the annual dues hit parade was No.1 Connecticut at $675; No. 2 Tennessee at $570; Georgia in 3rd at $536; New Hampshire in 4th place at $520; Hawaii at No. 5 with $501; and Alaska and Texas tied at No. 6 with $501 and then No. 7 Oregon at $500.
And rounding out the top ten were Wisconsin at No. 9 at $472 and No. 10, the Grand Canyon State of Arizona at $460.
And then there’s member-to-staff ratios, which are important when you wonder where all that money goes. You wonder, too, for example, how as its Executive Director Karen A. Gould explains, the Virginia State Bar, in 2010 the fifth largest mandatory bar in the country has the fifth lowest dues of mandatory bars at $275. And yet, it manages to serve its 45,000 members with a member-to-staff ratio of 478 to one, placing it 22nd on the member-to-staff list.
And then there’s 10th highest cost Arizona, which comes in first with a tumefied ratio of one staffer to 158 members.
“Some things are just too coincidental to be a coincidence,” said Yogi Berra. Nonetheless, for the cost of $75, anyone with an interest in the data on membership dues, administration and finances of 181 responding state and local bars, including total cost to practice in each state, membership dues levels, dues increases, membership retention, etc., can buy the “2011 State and Local Bar Membership, Administration, and Finance Survey e-Book.”
Photo credits: “Gillie in one of his resting places,” by Dwight Sipler, photofarmer, at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “Sisyphus” by Titian, Prado Museum, at Wikipedia Commons, public domain; “Nadya with sock puppet and fish, 2007″ by Nadya Peek at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “Rubber dinghy,” by Ben Sutherland at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “an unwitting victim…bwahahhahahaa,” by bark at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “Let them eat cake!” by Alaskan Dude, Frank Kovalchek, at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “Sleepy Head,” by Ben Salter, Capt’ Gorgeous, at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution.
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