December-January is the time of rendering-to-Caesar his due. It’s when lawyers in Nevada, Arizona and other jurisdictions have to pay their annual bar dues. Depending on the jurisdiction, the annual tariff can run from just over $200 to well over $500. Pity the lawyer admitted to multiple jurisdictions.
Ironically, the first quarter time period also coincides with the annual post holiday business doldrums and yearly pre-April 15th business lassitude. Doubtless these start of year cost contemplations also evoke that other annual ritual, the cost-benefit analytical introspection of bar dues paid versus benefits received.
Finding the need.
As any sales professional knows, successful selling occurs through finding the customer need and satisfying that need. Because of my background in sales and marketing, I learned this a long time ago. The rule applies to any business transaction involving the sale of a good or service to a customer.
But for purposes of this discussion, the rule also applies to the goods and services received from mandatory membership state bar organizations by their member lawyers, i.e., the captive customers paying annual bar dues.
Most bars have as their mission, to not only serve the public but to serve lawyers.  This is why a cost-benefit evaluation with respect to lawyer dues paid versus bar organization benefits received is apropos.
And because they are too often wedded to inertial operations, seldom if ever do state bars stop and reevaluate whether the goods and services they’re providing are even what their “customers” want.
And in times of economic necessity, like indolent government entities that look first at raising taxes before cutting costs, state bars likewise look first at increasing fees before looking at reducing expenses.
Bloated, arrogant, oblivious and unresponsive.
In 1997, then California Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a two-year fee authorization for the California State Bar because its actions had confirmed the charges of disgruntled members who characterized the bar as “bloated, arrogant, oblivious and unresponsive.” It’s a safe bet, this description can still be ascribed to too many of the 37 so-called “unified” or mandatory state bar organization in the country.
To its everlasting chagrin, the California Bar is one of 7 jurisdictions that requires legislative approval to collect fees. In recent years, the Bar has had to go before the state legislature annually for authorizations to collect membership fees.
So as to demonstrate that the beat still goes on, this past October, current California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave the California Bar another wake-up call. He vetoed the Cal Bar’s annual fee authorization request, which had been approved by both houses of the state legislature. Why did the governor veto the authorization?
Well, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s veto message took the the Bar to task as follows: In July, the State Auditor released a report critical of the State Bar. Among the problems noted by the report: salaries for staff have risen significantly over the past five years, the costs of its discipline system have escalated by $12 million from 2004 to 2008 while the number of disciplinary inquiries opened has declined; and a lack of internal controls allowed the embezzlement of nearly $676,000 by a former employee. As the organization charged with regulating the professional conduct of its members, the conduct of the State Bar itself must be above reproach. Regrettably, it is not.
In addition to the foregoing, the governor was unhappy with the leaking of a supposed-to-be secret state bar judicial nominees commission evaluation score. See Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE). Supposedly chastened as they were 12 years ago, the Bar again promises to do better and will be reintroducing the fee authorization bill request at the next legislative session. See State Bar dues bill will be reintroduced this month.
The difficulties encountered by mandatory state bar organizations are mostly self-inflicted. They’re the result of the multi-headed missions they subscribe to. First, there’s the mission to regulate the profession. Then there’s the mission to advance the administration of justice. Then there’s the mission to serve the public. And then there’s the mission to educate lawyers. And then somewhere in there, mostly subordinated to everything else since membership is mandatory, is their mission to serve its members. Given these divergent goals, it’s not uncommon to find inconsistencies in practice.
Fee Increases Wanted.
And now with the economic downturn, some state bars are making moves to raise fees. Utah filed its request to its Supreme Court last month, Petition to Increase Licensing Fees and at its November meeting, Oregon’s Board of Governors were asked to consider moving up a proposed dues increase from 2011 to 2010. See Oregon State Bar. And then in North Carolina, to pay for a new $14 million dollar headquarters, the Bar is looking at raising bar dues, too. North Carolina State Bar to stay in downtown Raleigh, build new …
And so as I render unto Caesar, Governor Schwarzenegger’s veto gives me considerable satisfaction. But I also have a wistful lament. As I am not a California lawyer, I regret the absence of similar independent, non-juridical, proactive answerability checks on other state bars likewise holding them to account.
 There is bound to be a push-back on the notion that mandatory bar members are “customers.” And some bars can forthrightly make the case. For example, unlike other state bars, the Arizona State Bar’s mission statement omits an express service to lawyers orientation: The State Bar of Arizona serves the public and enhances the legal profession by promoting the competency, ethics and professionalism of its members and enhancing the administration of justice. Compare the New Jersey State Bar Mission Statement: The mission of the New Jersey State Bar Association is to serve, protect, foster and promote the personal and professional interests of its members. Or North Dakota: The mission of the State Bar Association is to promote justice and to serve the lawyers and the people of North Dakota. Or Washington: The mission of the Washington State Bar Association is to serve the public and the members of the Bar, ensure the integrity of the legal profession, and to champion justice. Or Massachusetts: The Massachusetts Bar Association exists to serve the legal profession and the public by promoting the administration of justice, legal education, professional excellence, diversity and unity in the legal profession and respect for the law. [Emphases added]