Fewer than half of eligible lawyers voted in the referendum over the last several weeks, and by a slim majority -- 52 percent -- they said they wanted to cut their annual Washington State Bar Association dues from $450 to $325. Many cited the tough economy or concerns that the group has strayed too far from what they consider its core mission of policing the profession and serving its members.
"I can't tell you what the actual effect's going to be," said the state bar's volunteer president, Steve Crossland. "Everything is on the table."
Washington is one of 32 states in which all lawyers must belong to the bar association to practice. The organization is responsible for licensing attorneys and investigating complaints against them. It also provides an ethics hotline, mental health and employment counseling for lawyers, and staff and training for programs that give free or reduced-fee legal help for people facing foreclosure, divorce or other civil legal issues.
"We're all sitting here just going, 'Wow,"' said Joan Fairbanks, a bar association program manager. "What the bar does, it provides the staffing and infrastructure to make all these things happen. You can't make this stuff run with volunteers. We use hundreds and hundreds of volunteers, but you've got to have staff to manage the volunteers, to do the support work that's required so that people will volunteer."
The creation of one of those legal aid programs -- the Moderate Means Program, to provide assistance to people who make up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line -- was just announced this month, at a news conference with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. Now, it could be on the chopping block. The bar association provides 4 Ĺ staff members to run the program, plus training for lawyers who agree to participate, at an annual cost of $500,000.
"I was very, very disappointed in the outcome of the referendum," Madsen said Thursday. "It's easy for lawyers to get lost in their own practice and not be attentive to all the good the bar is doing for the public and the profession."
The newest member of the high court, Justice Steven Gonzalez, expressed similar concerns and noted that the low turnout of the referendum means only 22 percent of Washington's active lawyers voted to roll back their dues.
Proponents of the referendum, which was led by Spokane attorney William Sorcinelli, argued that according to American Bar Association figures, Washington is the eighth most expensive state in which to practice law. The bar association countered its fees are in line with other states that require bar membership, and cheaper than lawyers' mandatory dues in Oregon and Alaska.
The bar association, which has about 140 paid staff members, raised its annual dues from $407 in 2008 to $415 in 2009, then to $450 in 2010, when it promised to hold fees steady until 2013. The increases didn't sit well with many attorneys, including some solo practitioners who have struggled to find enough work since the Great Recession and state lawyers, deputy prosecutors and public defenders who have seen their pay frozen or cut in recent years.
In the meantime, the bar association has amassed reserves of more than $5 million, which could be used to ease any cuts in the short term.
Several lawyers also expressed frustration with the bar's disciplinary proceedings, which some consider overzealous; with the bar's decision to take occasional political positions, such as voicing its support for gay marriage when some of its members might disagree; and with the way the bar has spent some of its money, such as by maintaining expensive office space in downtown Seattle and sending top officials to a conference in Hawaii last year.
Julie Fowler, a solo attorney in Bellevue, said she found it maddening that the bar sought increased fees at a time when many lawyers who do free legal work to promote its mission were making less money. Fowler also said she remains bitter about receiving a disciplinary admonishment from the bar; she said if she could have afforded her own lawyer to take her case, she would have been found innocent.
"Sixty percent of the lawyers in Washington are solo practitioners who aren't making big bucks," Fowler said. "It doesn't seem as if the bar really took the cries of their members seriously. We were saying, 'We need you to tighten your belt, and you're telling us no."'
Phil Ginsberg, who defends lawyers accused of misconduct, said he was concerned about the effect any cuts could have on the disciplinary system, which already relies heavily on volunteer attorneys to prosecute cases.
"The public has a right to feel confident in the way the state bar polices the lawyers," he said.
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