September 2, 2015
District of Columbia Court of Appeals
430 E Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001
Re: Comment on D.C. Bar Board of Governors’ Petition to Raise Bar Dues Ceiling
Dear Chief Judge Washington:
Washington Council of Lawyers (“WCL”) writes in response to the D.C. Court of Appeals’ request for comments regarding the petition filed by the D.C. Bar Board of Governors seeking an increase in the dues ceiling for the D.C. Bar.
Since our founding as a voluntary bar association in 1971, WCL has promoted the public interest practice of law and pro bono service. We continue to seek and recommend strategies for all lawyers to engage in meaningful ways in providing legal services to those in our community who cannot afford an attorney. We strive to encourage more attorneys to make pro bono service a regular part of their legal careers, and to promote solutions to increase the availability of legal representation in the District of Columbia. Our members include attorneys at private law firms, contract attorneys, legal services attorneys, government attorneys, law school faculty, law students, and other legal professionals. We bring together all sectors of the legal community to work together to promote the access to justice.
The D.C. Bar Board of Governors’ petition proposes raising the bar dues ceiling from $285 to $380 to fund its projected operating expenses for the upcoming fiscal years. D.C. Bar dues fund the D.C. Bar’s operations (Bar Headquarters, Board of Professional Responsibility, Office of Bar Counsel, and Client Services Fund). The operations of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center are independent and unrelated to the level of dues set by the D.C. Bar. D.C. Bar dues pose a significant financial burden on many WCL members and other members of the D.C. Bar, particularly among those who are legal services attorneys, community attorneys, reduced-fee practitioners, new lawyers and solo practitioners.
Many of our members and other members of the D.C. Bar have significant law school debt, and struggle to balance their passion for providing legal services to the poor with the financial realities present in our area. Increased Bar dues will make it harder for some attorneys to take on pro bono and public interest cases, as it will increase the financial burden on their law practices, and the need to charge and collect legal fees for the work they do. Regardless of whether the D.C. Bar dues are paid by the individual attorney, every increase to Bar dues marginally diminishes the ability of attorneys to provide affordable legal services to low and moderate income individuals in our community.
D.C. Bar dues have increased each year since 1997 at a substantial rate. Even during the post-recession period between 2008 and 2010, Bar dues saw a notable increase from $188 to $224. Even when others in the D.C. legal community saw a substantial contraction in their earnings, and when legal services providers saw a significant decrease in donations, D.C. Bar dues increased. We recognize that D.C. Bar dues must increase from time to time in order to continue Bar operations, and we do not oppose some amount of increase to the current dues ceiling. However, increasing the dues ceiling is the first step to securing future dues increases, and we believe future dues increases should be minimized. The D.C. Bar should be encouraged to consider the limited means of many public-interest minded attorneys, when considering future dues and dues ceiling increases. The Bar must carefully weigh the need for additional funding for its programs against the value of those services to the legal community.
We also are concerned that the makeup of the Board of Governors committee did not include attorneys from the public interest community. A broader committee composition is an important way of ensuring the mindful stewarding of the dues that D.C. Bar members pay. We urge the Bar to include a wider variety of perspectives on future committees.
WCL members are united in our support of facilitating conditions which will encourage attorneys to provide pro bono legal services and take on social justice cases. Our members and many other members of the D.C. Bar are cost-conscious, and D.C. Bar dues are not trivial for these attorneys. Increasing Bar dues will create more hard choices for attorneys in deciding when and if they are able to provide free and low bono representation and become legal services attorneys.
We recognize the efforts of D.C. Bar Board of Governors members involved in the process of recommending Bar dues ceiling increases, and appreciate the opportunity to submit comments on this important issue.
Paul S. Lee
Washington Council of Lawyers