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Lawyers who let payment of their annual New Jersey registration fees lapse for several years may soon find it difficult to reinstate their good standing. The Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, which collects the annual assessments, is asking the state Supreme Court to revoke the license of any attorney who has failed for five consecutive years to make payments. Lawyers who renege on the $190 assessment are ineligible to practice. Under present R. 1:28-2, they can be reinstated upon making the payment plus late charges. But the list of ineligible lawyers, published each September, grows more unwieldy each year, due principally to long-term delinquents. Last year’s list had 14,385 lawyers, of which 6,590 — or 46 percent — had been listed for five years or more. Most of the long-term delinquents have out-of-state addresses and no longer practice in New Jersey. “They’re out in Oregon or somewhere and they just don’t care about their New Jersey license,” says Kenneth Bossong, executive director of the Fund. “There just comes a point where it’s silly to carry people on the rolls who have had no intention of taking care of their most fundamental obligation.” If the court accepts the proposal to amend R. 1:28-2, those lawyers would have to retake the New Jersey bar exam in order to resume practicing here. The court is expected to announce its decision on the rule change in about two weeks as part of its biennial rule revisions. State Bar Association President Edwin McCreedy says he expects the court will adopt the measure in spite of protests by the bar association. The Bar Association’s trustees voted unanimously to oppose the rule change in December 2003, but the Supreme Court asked the bar to reconsider, McCreedy says. After discussing the issue a second time June 18, the trustees stood by their earlier position. “I think the feeling was, in essence, that you are taking away a hard-earned right to practice law, and that’s too harsh a penalty,” says McCreedy. The bar association wrote to the court in April to propose creation of a new “voluntary inactive” registration status, carrying a reduced assessment, but the court has not responded to that suggestion. “I think the court may ignore our position and go ahead on this,” McCreedy says. “They probably are more concerned about the administrative cost of continuing to send these notices.” The Lawyers’ Fund’s get-tough approach grew out of a comment in its 2003 annual report about the burgeoning growth of the ineligible list. The court invited the fund to make a formal proposal concerning long-term delinquents. After the list is published each fall, about 1,000 lawyers promptly seek reinstatement, most of them first-time delinquents. But the list still increases markedly each year. Most recently, it has grown from 12,500 in 2001, to 13,200 in 2002, to 14,385 in 2003. Bossong admits that some of those lawyers may be deceased, and the fund does attempt to cull dead lawyers from its list by scanning newspaper obituaries. Periodically a lawyer who has been on the list several years will pay hundreds or thousands in arrears to be reinstated because they have received a job offer in the state or an opportunity to take up a lucrative matter here. Bossong says such reconciliations have been slightly more frequent since the bona fide office rule was liberalized last year, allowing out-of-state lawyers to take cases here if they have offices elsewhere. Bossong opposes creating the intermediate status the State Bar proposed. He says revenues to the fund would be reduced and assessments would have to be increased to make up the shortfall. The rule change also calls for an increase in the reinstatement fee. Currently a lawyer who’s been on the ineligible list one year must pay a $25 reinstatement fee plus the outstanding assessment, and one who has been on the list for more than one year is charged a $50 fee plus the outstanding assessment, but those fees would jump to $50 for one year and $100 for multiple years if the court approves. Jeffrey Hutchins is one of the perennial denizens of the list whom the rule change would adversely impact. Hutchins, of Boston’s Broude & Hochberg, attended Rutgers Law School-Camden and passed the New Jersey bar. Though he has not practiced here for 15 years, Hutchins never handed in his license. “I didn’t foreclose the possibility of returning to New Jersey in the future,” he says. “I have a tax practice so that is transferable from one state to another.” But a return to New Jersey would come at a steep price: Hutchins’ outstanding balance owed to the Fund exceeds $3,000. Bossong says those who don’t pay their assessments wrongly assume they’re not obligated because they don’t represent clients here. “They think, if I’m not contributing to the risk, I shouldn’t have to pay into the fund,” he says. “The truth is 99 percent of the people who pay into the fund are not contributing to the risk. This is a debt of honor.” The assessment includes $134 in disciplinary system costs, a $50 contribution to the Fund and a $6 stipend for the Lawyers Assistance Program, which helps lawyers with substance abuse and other addictive disorders.

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