Death, taxes and -- for those of us who are active members of the Bar -- annual dues, are all inevitable. This year, however, California's lawyers are being given a slight reprieve with a decrease in their dues. If you think this is the bar's way of reducing the burden on an already oversaturated market, think again.
To understand why your dues are lower, you need to go back to May 2016, when California State Auditor, Elaine Howle, submitted a report on the California State Bar. This report was a scathing indictment of the Bar and found that the Bar has failed to adequately communicate with stakeholders and the legislature, lacked transparency, lacked sufficient oversight, and "significantly" overpaid its executives. This was made more disturbing by the fact that the May 2016 report followed on the heels of a June 2015 report, which found that in order to reduce its enormous backlog of disciplinary proceedings, the "Bar allowed some attorneys whom it otherwise might have disciplined more severely—or even disbarred—to continue practicing law, placing the public at risk."
The California Assembly responded by introducing, and passing, AB-2878, which was intended to overhaul the Bar and potentially split it into two agencies; one as a trade association for lawyers and another as a regulatory body overseeing attorney discipline. When the California Senate rejected these changes, the Assembly refused to re-authorize the Bar's annual membership fees, leaving the Bar without a source of income for 2017.
Having no other recourse, in September 2016, the Bar requested that the California Supreme Court use its authority to approve an interim fee assessment. In November 2016, the Supreme Court acquiesced to the request, granting an "interim special regulatory assessment" of $297 per active member. However, in its order, the Court specifically declined to allocate funds for the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, the Center on Access to Justice, and the California Commission on Access to Justice; all programs focused on the nondisciplinary, public protection functions of the Bar. In other words, the Court seems to have sided with the Assembly by funding the Bar's disciplinary duties while expecting the trade association to fend for itself.
And that is why your bar dues are lower in 2017. Over the next budget cycle, expect to hear further discussions over the organization and funding of the Bar from attorneys, the legislature and (hopefully) the Governor's office.