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February 10, 2014
Some people make a habit of reacting after the fact to changing legal and financial conditions, then wondering how in the world they are going to pay the bills. You will no doubt recognize the most likely culprits, such as the state and federal government, or that black sheep in your family who conveniently dodges your calls and emails after he promised to re-pay the short-term loan you gave him a long-term ago. Our State Bar Association should not fall in that category, however, and I believe the Bar should act more like a business and be proactive in pursuing a business plan.
Regardless of your views on what the Bar should or shouldn’t be, there can be no dispute that it has a financial responsibility to its members. The State Bar has been drawing off its reserves due to revenue falling short of expenses. Tapping reserves was intentional – the Bar puts a great deal of time and effort into its budget process, and recent budgets have contemplated using reserves. This was a responsible action in the short term given the financial strain that lawyers were facing in the economy and the desire not to raise dues that would add to our members’ financial stress. Unfortunately, reserves are not infinite, and now members are facing a dues increase.
Now is the time to implement a comprehensive business plan rather than simply fill budget holes. We should address future dues and other revenues, as well as the expenses of operating the Bar Association and serving members. We do not have to make decisions in a vacuum – the Bar has authorized a study and report resulting in a Business Direction Strategic Plan. This report recognizes that the economics of practicing law and operating a bar association has changed, and identifies ways to ease the burden on members by increasing non-dues revenues.
Right now, member dues constitute 40% of the State Bar’s revenue, with other sources including books and CLE programs making up 60%. According to the State Bar’s analysis, however, we could boost non-dues revenue to 80% within the next several years by expanding our revenue sources.
During my campaign I have identified a couple of the business objectives I believe we should pursue, including marketing our Books-Unbound product to other states. The Books-Unbound product uses our State Bar’s proprietary software. We also have book editors and other staff with expertise in putting these products together. Using another state’s statutes and case law, and the State Bar of Wisconsin’s proprietary software and staff resources, we could market a product through another state’s bar association that would look like it came from that state. This would be a collaborative effort invited by other state bar associations who do not have the resources to produce this type of product on their own. Their state bar members would receive a valued resource. Meanwhile, the State Bar of Wisconsin would receive revenue that would reduce the dues burden.
There are other concepts that would similarly utilize current State Bar resources. This could include expanding our education programs to other states or other Wisconsin audiences (CPA’s, paralegals, etc.), or setting up Lawyer Referral Services for other state bar associations using our system. We could also use our Bar Center facilities to produce webinars or provide recording studio services to other Wisconsin companies.
Additional revenue can also be generated by thinking outside the box a bit. One example is trust account management services. Virtually all attorneys in private practice have trust accounts, which collectively hold large sums. Furthermore, we constantly battle with financial institutions regarding the low interest rates from trust accounts that are used for funding critical legal services for low-income individuals. The potential exists for the State Bar to be more involved in trust account services, which not could lead to additional State Bar revenue and would also be another way to improve the quality of services to members. Just as importantly, expansion in the area of trust account services could potentially lead to more money being available to serve low-income legal needs.
The idea is not to make the State Bar a powerful conglomerate – after all, we are not opening up Starbucks franchises or expanding into black sheep farming. Rather, we should simply serve members better and reduce the dues pressure for all members who have no alternative but to join the State Bar. We also have to continue as an association to monitor costs and expenses, and to reduce those when feasible.
I would like to serve as President-elect, and utilize my expertise as a business lawyer to aid the Bar in adopting a progressive business plan. If we don’t act as responsible business-people, then members will simply be faced in the future with additional reactionary dues increases without any plan for the future. In my opinion, such inaction would be as productive as counting black sheep – or expecting those black sheep to help you with your bottom line.
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