California’s state bar will ask lawmakers to hike fees for active lawyers by at least $100 annually to offset a projected operating deficit that bar leaders say will top $32 million by next year.
Bar trustees also want to charge lawyers $330 in one-time fees to pay for technology and building improvements as well as boosts in reserves and a fund that helps clients harmed by lawyers’ dishonesty or theft.
The fee hike and add-ons would raise an active lawyer’s 2020 bill to $860. The Legislature has not approved an increase in fees, previously called dues, since 1998.
“No amount of re-engineering and budget-cutting can make up for the fact that [the bar's] core source of revenue is flat, while costs for labor, technology, and other necessities keep rising,” Board of Trustees President Jason Lee said in a statement issued Friday after trustees endorsed the request. “We cannot manage our way out of this crisis, and we’re hopeful that the State Bar’s ability to fulfill its public protection mission won’t be put in jeopardy.”
Bar leaders are also seeking an inflation trigger in the 2020 fees bill that would automatically increase rates in future years.
For years, trustees have sought fee increases to pay for growing labor costs and to bolster the bar’s troubled disciplinary unit. In recent years, however, the Legislature has declined those requests as it pushed the agency to re-emphasize its regulatory mission, cut costs and sever ties with the professional sections and any advocacy work. Bar officials say if they don’t receive more funding this year they will have to make cuts in staff and services.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and will carry the fee bill this year, said lawmakers are waiting to see bar audit reports due in spring and summer from the state auditor and the legislative analyst’s office.
“I’m not particularly surprised by the ask for an increase,” Jackson said Monday. “The reception for that ask will really be considered when we get those reports.”
Jackson acknowledged the 20-year span since the last fee increase. As for the one-time charges of $330, “the bar is really going to have to demonstrate a very strong case, certainly for anything that resembles that large amount.”
Trustees and bar staff members are still working on a “scaling” mechanism that would lower fees for lower-earning lawyers. The bar’s executive director, Leah Wilson, noted at a trustees’ meeting last week that any discounted rates would have to be offset by higher fees for lawyers with higher salaries or higher household incomes.