I wrote in an earlier post how I never really gave much thought to our state’s mandatory bar association. All I really knew was that I had to cut them a pretty big check each year in order to keep my law license. Sure, I realized that I wasn’t getting anything of value for the payout, but I really didn’t care enough to give it a second thought—until I started reading The Irreverent Lawyer, a blog that places state bar associations, mandatory CLEs, and related topics squarely within its crosshairs of criticism. And because of this, I’m now far more sensitive to the absurdity that is our state bar association.
Election time must be fast approaching, as I’ve recently received the statements of two candidates that want to be state bar president. A quick read of these statements illustrates one of the main problems with mandatory bars: they try to be everything to everyone, and in the process become, at best, irrelevant. Each candidate’s statement essentially promises to please every bar member, including big firm lawyers, government lawyers, small solo lawyers, public interest lawyers, and everyone in between. For example, one candidate states that his goal is to “constructively connect these diverse . . . sectors of our profession.” (Seriously?) The other candidate states that he will “be open to all members’ concerns, whether they are in private or government practice, or are valued nonresident members.” (We must also value the non-resident members, as they help fill the bar's coffers.)
Being everything to everyone is, of course, not possible. Lawyers are not only incredibly diverse in their needs and interests, but often one group’s needs and interests will directly conflict with those of another group. Because of this reality, each candidate’s statement quickly devolves into the usual, empty mantras about staying ahead of emerging technologies, encouraging pro bono legal work, mentoring young lawyers, providing better and cheaper mandatory CLEs (or, conversely, raising more money for the bar from its CLE offerings). The statements are also cluttered with the usual action words like “pro-active,” “anticipate,” “evaluate,” and “implement.” This jibber-jabber is as predictable as a judicial candidate who claims to want the job in order to serve the community.
By way of contrast, I practice criminal defense and joined the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (WA
CDL). Unlike the state bar, WACDL is voluntary, so
it actually has to convince me that it can offer something of value before I
cut it a check—a check that is about 20 percent the size of the check I write for
my involuntary state bar membership. How does WA CDL do it? It is focused on the real needs of a specific group of lawyers. Paraphrasing what I remember of its sales
pitch more than a decade ago:
Join our group. We offer updates and commentary on the ever-changing law in your practice area. We have a members-only list-serve so you can ask questions and share ideas. We have a searchable database of motions and briefs written by other criminal defense lawyers. We offer low-cost CLEs specifically on criminal law and litigation strategies. Thank you for your time.
This illustrates the difference between mandatory bars that, by trying to serve everyone, actually serve no one, and voluntary bars that have to earn their revenues by focusing on a specific type of lawyer and actually serving their membership in a meaningful way. After all, if you can’t force someone to give you money, you have to offer them something of value to get them to write that check. Despite this obvious reality, however, things are not likely to change. We’ve had several state bar presidents who have won election based on their platform of vowing to turn the bar into a voluntary organization. It’s what the presidents and the membership want, yet we’ve repeatedly failed.
It’s possible that Wisconsin’s state bar bureaucracy—which is already one of the ten most expensive in the country—has grown too big, is too entrenched, and is here to stay.