Monday, February 13, 2017

An open letter to our next state bar president

I recently received a mailing from Jon P. Axelrod who is running for state bar president.  He provides a bullet-point list of some things he wants to accomplish.  I have an opinion on three of those things.  First, Axelrod wants to “provid[e] money to forgive student loans” to encourage law school graduates to practice in “underserved areas of Wisconsin.”  I’m not sure where this money would come from, but this debt-forgiveness frolic had better not be funded by our bar dues.  As the Irreverent Lawyer has shown us, Wisconsin’s state bar bureaucracy is already one of the most expensive in the country.  Also, there’s simply no need to encourage new lawyers to take jobs.  There is a glut of lawyers in Wisconsin already, and they’re scrambling to find work. Only 64 percent of UW grads and 62 percent of MU grads from the class of 2015 found long-term, full-time legal jobs.  

Second, Axelrod discusses appointing “a study committee to address declining law school enrolment and resulting decline in State Bar membership.”  There’s nothing to study here.  Law school enrollment is down because there are few available law jobs -- and even fewer high paying ones that justify taking on the debt required to become a lawyer.  Further, this decline in law school enrollment is a very good thing for practicing lawyers.  Lawyer wages have been declining in real dollars for decades; they’ve been depressed, in part, by the lawyer glut.  (Other causes include artificial intelligence that is now doing advanced legal work; yes, the computers are better than we are.)  The only ones that will be hurt by the decline in law school enrollment will be the law schools and the state bar bureaucracies.  The solution for our state bar is simple: trim the fat.  The business lingo for this is downsizing -- or is it now called right-sizing?

Third, Axelrod wants to appoint another “study committee to determine whether the civility rules” should be enforced by OLR. Again, there is no need for a committee.  The answer is a firm “absolutely not.”  These rules are ridiculous, vague, potentially incredibly broad, impossible to enforce consistently, and will result in random punishment of free speech.  We don’t need more restrictions on speech.  According to the state bar's interpretation of ethics rule 1.9, we lawyers are already prevented from talking about even the public aspects of our closed cases.  (This is something that Rob Henak, Ellen Henak, Terry Rose, and I tried unsuccessfully to correct last year, and our efforts were strongly opposed by our “friendly state bar.”)  And now, as the Irreverent Lawyer explains, there’s a new ABA rule -- one that our state bar will likely applaud -- that if adopted would violate our free speech rights by banning offensive speech in many settings outside of the courthouse.  (Here, as a writer, I must side with the late Christopher Hitches, a political journalist and free-speech advocate who said: "I don't seek the title of inoffensive, which I think is one of the nastiest things that could be said about an individual writer.")

The message to the next state bar president is simple.  He or she needs to work for the membership, not the bureaucracy.  At the very least, he or she needs to stop working against the membership.  One step in the right direction is to start supporting, rather than trying to suppress, the memberships’ first amendment rights.  After all, being forced to pay dues to a mandatory bar association, with an inherent conflict of interest, just for the privilege of earning a living is enough of a first amendment violation in and of itself.


  1. Yeah, I was really taken aback by the "underserved areas of Wisconsin." I know he's referencing the counties on the fringes of the state, but I'm getting new SPD felonies every 10-14 days in Milwaukee County and I just got asked to join the Racine overflow list, so I'm not sure we couldn't argue that those counties are "underserved" too.

    1. Yes, good point. And the reality is that there are plenty of lawyers to handle the work in all of these counties. The problem is that the pay is too low. So now they're asking out of town lawyers to take the work. One of the problems there is that the SPD only pays $20 per hour for travel time, I think. So for much of your time you wouldn't even get to earn the 1980s-based $40 per hour.

  2. Keep up the good fight, Michael!