I recently got an email from the Wisconsin Law Foundation (an arm of the state bar) signed by the bar’s president. The bar is seeking donations so it can host three separate send-offs to honor its retiring executive director (E.D.). Donations correspond to increasingly hierarchical titles. For example, a $250 donation buys me the title of American Counselor, whereas $1,000 buys me the far more prestigious title of English Barrister. (The titles of “landed gentry” and “aristocrat” are apparently not available.) Donors’ names, along with their newly acquired titles, will appear on the party invites for all to see. From what I can tell, the donations fund the three retirement parties and these parties, in turn, “will focus on raising support for the good work of the Law Foundation.” So I’m not sure if the bar will hit up the party-goers for additional donations or if there will be some sort of raffle — the email isn’t entirely clear. Equally unclear is how much we lawyers have been paying the E.D. for his years of “service” that the bar is so eager to celebrate.
Here’s what I found out. My first step was to respond to the email — not with a monetary pledge, of course, but with a question. I asked exactly how much we lawyers have been paying the E.D. for his “service.” In the alternative, I asked for a link to the website where this presumably public information is available. Having received no response, I searched the web and found a Wisconsin Law Journal article on point. (The article is about five years old, so I’m genuinely hoping that things have changed since it was written. If any one has something more current, please comment and provide a link and I will update this post accordingly.)
In his article “State Bar’s limits on financial transparency create budgetary blind spots” (subscription required), author James Briggs discovered that the E.D.’s salary, along with a lot of other financial information, is top secret and is not available even to the board of governors and finance committee, let alone the bar’s dues-paying membership. How does the bar get away with this? “The State Bar straddles a line between being a state agency . . . and a private corporation, which is not compelled to share financial information even with the people elected to govern it.”
Briggs quotes Steve Levine, a bar governor, who observed that “[t]he State Bar has a schizophrenic identity. When it comes to the advantages of being a state entity . . . they claim to be a state agency. But when they want to act in private or in secret and avoid all public requirements state agencies are required to follow, they say they’re just a private organization.”
And to the point of my question, Briggs adds that “[e]ven George Brown’s executive director salary is officially unknown . . .” Further, Briggs’ research indicates that an open records request would not be successful, and he questions whether it is right that “dues-paying members do not have access to information about how the State Bar spends its money.”
Briggs also quotes former bar president Doug Kammer — a long-time advocate for a voluntary bar and for more transparency and accountability to the bar’s membership. Kammer says this with regard to how the bar spends its memberships’ money: “The Board of Governors has no idea what they’re voting for. When it comes down to the last $300,000, when they’re deciding how much to spend on paper clips, the Finance Committee stretches and strains and agonizes over it, but the first $11 million disappears off the table with no oversight.”
So given the secret nature of this massive bureaucracy that I am forced to fund, I’m afraid I have to decline the request to donate money for the E.D.’s three retirement parties. Nor do I want to donate money to fund the Law Foundation which, among other things, gives money to new lawyers to “defray the cost of attending the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting & Conference.” (Or, as the Irreverent Lawyer calls it, the annual butt-numb-a-thon.) In fact, I don’t even want to pay my mandatory bar dues. But until we do what
appears to be on the brink of accomplishing — making the bar voluntary instead of mandatory — it looks like I’ll have no choice but to write that particular check.