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California lawyers’ annual dues will remain at $390 for the next year, but at the expense of a proposed center that would have provided attorneys help with any State Bar-related problems other than discipline. The State Bar governors voted 11-8 on a new budget Saturday that puts $1 million toward a seismic upgrade for the organization’s high-rise office building at 180 Howard St. in downtown San Francisco. The overall 2003 budget is $49.2 million, which is down from this year’s $51.9 million budget. Of the overall budget, State Bar officials said, 78 percent goes toward the discipline system. Much of the debate during the weekend meeting centered on whether the board should approve a budget that included both a seismic upgrade and funds for a proposed Member Services Center. State Bar staffers had recommended against fully funding either for fear of huge deficits down the road. “The staff makes this recommendation not joyously,” Executive Director Judy Johnson said, “but out of fiscal prudence.” Even so, several board members felt that a seismic upgrade, strongly recommended by outside consultants, was essential for preserving the Bar’s greatest financial asset — its 13-story San Francisco office tower. “Real estate, over time, always increases in value,” said Santa Barbara State Bar governor James Herman, who takes over as president in October. There were also concerns that fully funding both a seismic upgrade and a Members Services Center could eventually force an increase in Bar dues, which Bar staffers and board members alike oppose. “Whether we like it or not, our members are obsessed with the fee,” Los Angeles governor Patrick Dixon said. “We need to listen to what our members want. Our members want a low dues bill.” As passed by the board, the 2003 dues of $390 per active lawyer breaks down to $335 for the general fund, $10 for the building fund, $35 for the client security fund — which provides up to $50,000 in reimbursements for clients burned by bad lawyers — and $10 for lawyer assistance. Inactive lawyers will have to pay only $50 for the year. Spurning the proposed Member Service Center — even if only for this year — was particularly painful for the board. As Executive Director Johnson pointed out, members of the public who have a problem with a lawyer have an outlet for help at the Bar, but a lawyer with State Bar problems faces a maze in trying to reach someone within the organization. Francis Bassios, special assistant to Johnson, said the purpose of a Member Services Center was “to institute a one-stop response center for members to communicate any and all of their issues with the State Bar that were not discipline related.” “For example,” he noted, “member billing issues, MCLE, insurance, lawyer assistance programs, a whole plethora of stuff that is right now inconsistently provided by other departments. The idea was to bring it all together.” Bassios said he believes a Member Services Center will be a reality someday. “There was clearly a desire for it expressed at the board,” he said, “and had there been another way to fund it, I think they would have gone there. It came down to a choice between the building and the Member Services Center and they went the other direction at this time.” Executive Director Johnson, in a nod to the governors’ impassioned debate over the budget, said that board members in the past would have “gleefully” approved funds for both a seismic upgrade and a Member Services Center “without considering the fiscal impact.” But Johnson also took a jab at lawyers — with incomes far above the average person — for being “obsessed” with Bar dues and believing that $390 is outrageous. “Our union members pay more than $390,” she noted. “My mother paid more than this to work 25 years ago at a cannery.” L.A. governor Dixon expressed similar sentiments, but noted that two recently elected board members from Los Angeles campaigned partly on dues being too high. Maverick Long Beach governor Matthew Cavanaugh, who backed the so-called outsiders’ campaigns and recently told the California Bar Journal that they plan to call themselves “the reformers,” chimed in to advise that future members of the board are going to be “harsher on dues.”

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