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Amended dues bill goes to the governor’s desk

The State Bar’s dues bill, leaving member fees at the 2010 level of $410 per active member, was approved by the legislature last month and went to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s desk for his signature. The measure was amended at the last minute to earmark $10 of the fee for legal services, and it includes requirements that a public protection task force be created and that bar employees’ salaries and benefits be made public upon request.

State Bar President Howard Miller and President-elect Bill Hebert supported the amendments, which were introduced by the judiciary committees of both the Senate and Assembly.

The diversion of $10 to legal services amounts to a $2 million hit to the bar’s general fund. (The 2010 general fund budget totals $66.2 million, and 79 percent of that underwrites the discipline system.) Bar members will have the option to deduct that $10 from their dues payment and the money collected from those who choose to pay it will be used to underwrite legal aid through 2013. Attorneys also can opt  out of paying $5 for lobbying and $5 for elimination of bias efforts.

The bill requires the bar president to create a “Governance in the Public Interest Task Force” of 11 members to submit a report every three years to the Supreme Court, the governor and the legislative judiciary committees with recommendations for improving the bar’s public protection efforts.

According to an analysis by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the public protection provision was added in response to “concerns that recent actions taken by the State Bar Board of Governors have not sufficiently taken into account the protection of the public.” The analysis cited approval of a scaled-back “Find a Lawyer” program that excludes some information from search criteria, opposition to two legislative efforts concerning attorney participation in foreclosure-related scams, reduced malpractice insurance disclosure requirements, and the board’s decision last year to not reappoint the bar's chief trial counsel.

The legislative committees also received recommendations from Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego. Fellmeth, a longtime bar watchdog, recommended that the board of governors be appointed rather than elected and that its composition be changed to include a majority of public members, that the chief trial counsel be appointed by the Supreme Court, that the bar be subject to the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, and that the Lawyer Assistance Program be independently audited or eliminated.

Although none of the recommendations is included in the fee measure, the public protection task force is to be created in part to address them and a representative of Fellmeth’s group offered support for the amendments.

The committee also looked at the bar’s so-called rainy day fund that holds $6.4 million as well as other reserves that were under consideration during the summer to fund possible employee buyouts. A proposal to do so was pulled from a board agenda in July.

At the same time the buyout was under consideration, the analysis noted, funding for legal services has taken a nosedive. Revenues from the IOLTA (Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts) program have declined 75 percent since 2007 and donations to the Justice Gap Fund have dropped by 40 percent over the last three years.

The $410 dues for active members includes $315 as the annual fee, $40 for the Client Security Fund, $25 for disciplinary activities, $10 for the Lawyer Assistance Program, $10 for a building fund and $10 for technology upgrades. The fee for inactive attorneys will be $125.