Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Bar Dues Rant

As a member of the District of Columbia Bar, I have the honor and privilege of paying annual dues. This year, the ticket costs $237.

As a former Bar employee, I probably take a closer look at the annual budget than your average dues paying member. My cursory review suggests that this linked announcement is about all that a member can readily find out about how the Bar spends our annual dues.

A couple of things jump out at me.

Roughly one-third of District of Columbia Bar revenues go to fund the disciplinary system. This year, the Board on Professional Responsibility ("BPR") line item is a hair over $7 million out of a total of a hair over $22 million. The allocation covers the costs of Bar Counsel (the prosecutors) and the BPR office, which administers a system that is supposed to largely depend on the efforts of unpaid volunteers.

I took at look at the BPR budget when I wrote my analysis of the D.C. attorney discipline system. The BPR allocation rose from $2.23 million in 1994-95 to $4.69 million in 2004-05. Now it's gone up over $2.3 million more.

Are we getting bang for our buck?

I have not studied the issue, but my sense is that the workload of the BPR had actually decreased in recent years as the Court of Appeals by rule amendment has largely removed the (previously heavy) load of reciprocal discipline matters from BPR review. As for Bar Counsel, it certainly appears that there has not been any increase in prosecutions. To the contrary, I suspect (but have not confirmed through study) that the number of petitions (formal charges) is in decline.

The effort to find an answer to the above question brings me to my second point. The Bar must be far more transparent than it is at present about how it spends our dues money. I think that members are entitled to such transparency. In the digital world, that means providing a far more detailed budget online than the linked summary. Then, we could get answers about potential waste of mandatory dues.

It is noteworthy that the Bars are recession-proof. If you want to play, you have to pay. This fact should in no manner excuse the Bars (not just D.C.) from being accountable for how dues money is spent. At a minimum, a readily available (i.e. online) detailed budget should be the right of both bar members and the public they serve. (Mike Frisch)

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