I was frustrated and angry to learn that the State Bar of Arizona Board of Governors is considering raising our bar dues starting in 2015. Our dues would go up $25/year for four years. The State Bar gives new attorneys lower dues for their first two years of practice so this will be the first year I pay the full $460 for my annual bar dues. I don’t want them go to up to $560.
Arizona Grunge Flag by Free Grunge Textures from Flickr (Creative Commons License)
The legal world is a self-regulating profession so I’m not frustrated with the State Bar; I’m frustrated with our State Bar. Yes, they regulate us, but they regulate us as we’ve told them to. So if I’m unhappy with the way they’re running the show, it’s my obligation to openly oppose it. I’m pleased that some members of the Board, namely Sam Saks, Melissa Ho, and Geoff Trachtenberg, are publicly opposing the increase. And for anyone who is unfamiliar with the Arizona Bar, it’s a mandatory pay-to-play state. You can’t be an Arizona attorney without being a member of the State Bar and our bar dues are already among the highest in the country.
My source at the State Bar told me there are 17,680 active attorneys in the Bar. Let’s say 17,000 of them have to pay full bar dues because they’ve been in practice for over two years. These 17,000 will pay $7.82 million in bar dues in 2014. If the proposed increase is accepted, these 17,000 attorneys will pay $9.52 million in bar dues in 2018. I would want to see what will cost $1.7 million more than what it costs now.
The fact that the Board of Governors is considering increasing our dues means that it’s time to take a closer look at how our money is currently being spent. I want to see how much money is coming in and where it’s being spent. I don’t mind paying for services that are necessary (like lawyer regulation, LOMAP, and the ethics hotline), that we’ve collectively agreed we should pay for, and occasional increases due to inflation. I don’t want to pay for things that don’t enhance the profession.
For example, I recently received my 2014 Arizona Bar Directory in the mail. How many people use the paper printing of the bar directory? We have an online database. How much did we pay to print and ship these phonebooks? Unless this is somehow a moneymaker, the paper directory should only be printed for those who order and pay for it.
Maricopa County Court House by Ms. Phoenix from Flickr (Creative Common License)
I wanted to gauge how my fellow attorneys felt about this issue so I sent a survey to my fellow Arizona legal eagles who graduated in or after 2007. As of this post, I’ve received 24 responses, mostly from the class of 2011. Twenty-one respondents said they took out loans to pay for law school (most of them over $100K) and all of them are still paying them off (up to $1,600/month). To ask them to pay $560/year just to be able to keep being attorneys, is asking a lot.
For anyone who wants to dismiss this problem by saying that attorneys don’t pay for their bar dues, their firms do; over half of the respondents reported that they were responsible for their bar dues, either paying directly out of pocket or because they were the owner of their firm so any business expenses can cut into their take-home pay. Even when the firm pays its attorneys’ bar dues, every dollar they spend on dues is a dollar they can’t put towards business development, pro bono work, and community involvement.
I gave the respondents a chance to share their thoughts about the proposed increase. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“I would want to know what I’m getting with the extra money. The dues are already crazy high compared to most other states and I don’t understand why.”
“One would think that with technology to handle much of what used to be paperwork for bar applications, testing (we do not have to create our own exam any longer), etc., costs would go down, not up. These costs ultimately get passed onto the public in higher fees and legal representation is already prohibitively expensive for most people.”
“Bar dues are effectively a tax on attorneys, which we have only minimal representation on due to the lack of transparency of the bar association. I feel that many of the bar’s programs and expenditures are of little value and should be funded from non-mandatory sources. If the legal community really feels those programs are needed, people will contribute voluntarily to support them.”
For anyone who wants to have their voice heard, this proposal will be considered by the Board of Governors on Thursday, December 12th, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday, December 13th, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Arizona State Bar office in Phoenix. Any member of the Bar can attend the board meeting (I’ll be there), and you can contact the Bar if you wish to speak on this issue. The vote is expected to occur on Friday.