Other candidates have their own slate.

Lots of interest building for the Arizona bar’s board of governors election kicking off this Wednesday, May 7th. Some of the candidates are trolling for votes. Others are hustling for endorsements from the various voluntary bars.

Still others are running their own slates. To the latter candidates, I say more power to you. One of the latest I’ve seen is reproduced below and while it is different from the recommendations I made, the lawyers on the list merit serious consideration.

Indeed, three are on my recommendation list: Dave Derickson, Richard Coffinger and Melissa Ho. The other two, Alex Lane and Bob McWhirter, didn’t speak to the issues driving this year’s election when they had a chance to in their candidate statements.

The central issues driving lawyer concerns this time include: the dues increase; the board and bar’s lack of transparency; the board’s insularity/non-communication and the future direction of the bar. But better late than never.

I heartily applaud the issues they support.

Here’s their post:


 

“VOTE FOR DERICKSON, COFFINGER, HO, LANE AND McWHIRTER

“YOUR MOST IMPORTANT BOARD OF GOVERNORS VOTE EVER!

“The recent dues increase resulted from the Bar president breaking A TIE VOTE. Richard Coffinger, Dave Derickson and Melissa Ho all voted AGAINST the dues increase, after successfully lobbying for opening Bar finances to all Members and soliciting the hundreds of comments from you. We are a single vote away from a Bar that controls its expenses, listens to its Members and is a partner in steering through troubled economic waters. We urge you to re-elect Coffinger, Derickson and Ho and elect two teammates—Alex Lane and Bob McWhirter—who pledge to give the Bar back to its Members.

“Voting for us means that five of the nine Governors from Maricopa County will be criminal defense attorneys with an unbeatable background of small business knowledge and service to the profession. The Bar president appoints the Committee that makes all of the appointments to the Merit Selection Commissions, including the City Advisory Boards. The President, as head of the Executive Committee (SCOPE) directs the agenda for the Board. The last president and the next two presidents each had or have long careers as prosecutors. We need to restore balance to the Board of Governors as we work toward providing our Members with the tools for being successful in a difficult profession during difficult times.

“We support:

· Treating our Members as we would treat clients, and their dues money as a trust fund for their benefit

· Reducing costs while expanding the Bar’s value to Members efficiently

· Insisting that the Board encourage open communication—in both directions—with the Membership

· Disciplinary Oversight to screen out bar complaints (charges) that are unlikely to merit a formal complaint

· Expanding the ethics hotline to educate and assist lawyers in avoiding sanctionable mistakes

· Continuing provision of FASTCASE free to Members

· Free website-supported law office management assistance and practice transition planning guidance

“Our profession is at a turning point economically and politically. Like the dues increase vote, EVERY SINGLE VOTE will be necessary to restore the Bar to serving its Members.

“For the May 7, 2014 election, you will receive an email from the Bar, providing your personalized log in and password for your ballot.

“VOTE FOR DERICKSON, COFFINGER, HO,

LANE AND McWHIRTER”


 

Status quo no more.

What makes the vote for the Arizona Bar’s Maricopa County board of governors representatives so important is the chance to get fresh leadership on the board’s executive committee. The executive committee effectively runs the bar. And Alex Vakula and Lisa Loo are the two incumbents on the executive committee running for another term. Indeed, as current second vice president, if reelected, Ms. Loo ascends to the state bar presidency in 2016.

Ironically, the latter committee incumbent is highlighting the board’s vote to increase dues — but conveniently omits her key role in getting it passed. But make no mistake, both executive committee incumbents voted in lockstep and raised dues when it wasn’t necessary. If they get re-elected, it is fair to expect more of the same: a high-cost, tone-deaf, smug and insular board of governors and an ever-expanding state bar bureaucracy.

And as we now know, despite the bar’s already bloated $14.6 million budget currently 125% of comparably sized state bar budgets, there will be almost $4 million dollars in surplus funds by 2019 thanks to the unwarranted increase!

And as you may further recall, the board’s original goal at its October 2013 meeting had been to hike dues by 22% or $100.00. At that time, the bar president and its executive committee characterized the $100.00 increase as a de facto ultimatum: raise dues or make significant cuts.

But incredibly, when the opportunity evaporated to quietly increase dues via an under-the-radar vote 12 days before Christmas, the board reversed course. Thanks to the complaints of restive members, it tabled the vote until its following meeting, February 27, 2014.

However, that was when the executive committee came up with its gambit. Unexpectedly recalibrating its prior desperate plea for a supposedly much-needed $100.00 increase, it suddenly came up with ‘only’ a $60.00 increase! What was once a hotly defended and supposedly dire need for a $100.00, miraculously transformed into a rationale for a smaller dues hike.

But there was an invidious amendment to the now 13% increase. It was tied to a historically unprecedented annual automatic Consumer Price Index (CPI) cost-of-living escalator.

Thankfully, the board negated the executive committee’s gambit and nixed the automatic escalator. But thanks to the persistent high-handedness of the bar’s president who broke an 11-11 tied vote, the board of governors passed the increase, anyway. And the executive committee was critical to the entire process.

In sum, 33 lawyers are running for 9 seats to represent Maricopa County this election. Let me suggest that there are better choices — than voting for executive committee incumbents who supported an unnecessary dues increase. Re-electing Alex Vakula and Lisa Loo will mean business as usual and more of the same.

Time to declare ‘thumbs down’ on the status quo. Vote instead to transform the bar in favor of fairness, accountability, cost-consciousness, and transparency. With your votes, it will happen.


Photo Credits: “Pete thumbs down,” by imadonut at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution;”/disapprove”by Tobvias sudoneighm Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution.

 

 

Q & A With Candidate Greg Gnepper

Greg’s Candidate Statement:

State Bar Questions posed to all candidates: Why are you interested in running for election to the Board of Governors? What do you believe are the significant issues facing the members today? If elected, how would you hope to address these issues?

“I would not come to the Board of Governors with my own predetermined agenda. Rather, if elected to serve, I would welcome input from all constituents regarding significant issues and how the board should respond. The profession is largely self-governing, so the board should solicit input from and strive to represent the interests of all members, not a select few (and, when opinions diverge, not only the majority). In serving its mission and to maintain members’ confidence, I believe the Board of Governors should particularly follow three traits: transparency in operations, efficiency with membership dues, and responsiveness to member needs.”

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Follow-up Questions:

Greg

Along with a number of my colleagues, we are trying to educate ourselves on the lawyers running for the BOG and with your indulgence, I have some questions to ask some of which are based on your intriguing statement. We are not seeking feedback from all 38 candidates but from those that have particularized statements that suggest a new direction from the status quo.

Many candidates run for the BOG with pledges to represent members and to seek their input. For many years, however, the BOG has been an insular organization that largely doesn’t communicate with its members but relies on staff, what other bars do, and group-think to formulate ideas and initiatives. Inasmuch as you are running without “my own predetermined agenda,” how would your agenda-less term be different?

More specifically, how would you go about obtaining “input from all constituents regarding significant issues”? Also, please define what you think are the “significant issues” facing members today?

Given that the express mission of the bar is “protecting the public of Arizona” and not directly serving its members, how do you reconcile the mission with your desire to “strive to represent the interests of all members.”

Please clarify what you mean by “when opinions diverge, not only the majority.” And how would you implement the “three traits” mentioned in your statement: transparency, efficiency and responsiveness?

The bar operates with almost a $15 million dollar annual budget. Well over $8 1/2 million is compensation and benefits. What are your views on the size of the bar and its mission going forward?

Finally two questions, what is your assessment of what transpired both procedurally and substantively concerning the recent dues increase?

What are your views on lawyer discipline? Working or not working? The system currently operates with an annual budget of $5 million with little transparency of where the money goes.

Thanks for your consideration.


 

Note: Greg Gnepper didn’t make my short list. Nonetheless, merits serious consideration. He courteously took time, thought and interest to respond to the email above. For members still undecided and weighing their votes for each candidate, I am pleased to republish Greg’s remarks verbatim in their entirety here.


 

“Mo,

“Thanks for your email. Members like you—who stay informed and involved—make the bar strong. I will do my best to answer your questions. I also hope you will support my candidacy. But regardless of how you vote, it’s most important that you continue reaching out to whomever is elected.

“Regarding obtaining input from constituents, I’m hoping concerned members will reach out to me (like you did)—through email, telephone, or any medium. I promise to always respond, and I promise to always follow up with the steps I took to address those issues with the board or appropriate committee. But I cannot guess what people want. In a system like ours, “squeaky wheel gets the grease” often dictates what issues are addressed. One idea I have is using social media to create additional, easier methods for members to communicate with board members.

“Regarding my “agenda-less agenda,” in addition to listening to members’ needs, at a minimum I will not allow the existing staff and existing structure to dictate policy decisions. For any type of choice in life, the worst possible justification is “that’s how we’ve always done it.” I cannot stand that type of reasoning.

“Regarding my intention of representing all members, that is mostly my view of how government should operate. It’s not just majority rule. Minorities need protections too. In addition to the traditional classifications of minorities, with attorneys there are solo practitioners, government attorneys, in-house counsel, etc. The bar should not pander to downtown law firms simply because they have the largest presence. A primary function of government is to protect minorities from the whims of the majority. That is particularly true with the law.

“Regarding the recent dues increase, substantively I do not oppose it. (I cannot say that I affirmatively support the increase without a better review of the budget, budget cuts, and the ability to interview those involved.) Procedurally, I was bothered. Such an important decision should not come down to a tiebreaker. The governors should have tried hard to develop a consensus before bringing the matter to a vote. And until a strong majority agreed, the issued should have been tabled for further dialogue. I also think the board should have done a better job of communicating with members about the proposed increase.

“Regarding lawyer discipline, I think the system is producing fair results—but the cost is exorbitant. We could do a better job in that regard. And as you note, there needs to be clearer descriptions of how the system is funded.”

Greg Gnepper

Interest in BOG election starting to pique: “Let’s Fix our State Bar.”

With the start of online elections just 8 calendar days away on May 7, 2014, Arizona bar members are starting to revisit the candidate statements published weeks ago online and more recently, in the state bar’s monthly magazine. And indeed, as I’ve been told, this week our in boxes will receive a bar blast email with links again to the Board of Governor (BOG) candidate statements.

And just today Ruth Carter at The Undeniable Ruth sent me a link containing her own take on the upcoming BoG election “Let’s Fix our State Bar – Vote in the BoG Election! Here’s Who Made My Short List.” She posted it early this morning. And the title says it all.

But something else Ruth said also resonated me. It was her litmus test of sorts – “money.” When it came down to reading and re-reading those candidate campaign statements — all thirty-three of them in Maricopa County, to quote Ruth, “If a candidate didn’t mention money, I feared they would be too afraid to take a stand when it mattered. I need a BoG who will speak for me.”

Well said.

Whither thou goest, Arizona State Bar?


Note: I wrote the following commentary for a local business and legal publication, The Record-Reporter, which published it a week after the State Bar of Arizona’s Board of Governors voted to increase member dues.


 

WILL ANY OF US EVER LIVE LONG ENOUGH TO SEE AN ACTUAL DECREASE IN DUES? ONE LAWYER DOESN’T THINK SO.

By Mauricio “Mo” Hernandez

March 7, 2014

People 15551“What kind of bar do you want?” asked Arizona Bar Executive Director John Phelps. This was last week when the bar’s board of governors debated whether to raise members’ dues. The board had tried last December. But the largely unannounced below-the-radar vote 12 days before Christmas ended up postponed after brouhaha erupted among members.

The last licensing fee hike was in 2005. Happily for board members who’ve never met a fee increase they didn’t like and who wanted more of the same, the answer to John’s question last Thursday came by 12-11 vote in their favor.

Speaking of rhetorical questions, I have a better one, “How old will I be when the bar lowers dues?” With an annual budget topping $14.6 million, almost 60% of which is compensation and benefits, methinks I’ll be ashes in search of an urn before that ever happens.

Work World 38According to the 2013 ABA Survey, among mandatory bars with more than 20,000 members, Arizona’s budget is already 125% higher than the $11,720,787 average for comparable bars. High budgets notwithstanding, last week’s board meeting also revealed that by the time the total dues increase is fully implemented, the bar projects a $4.1MM surplus. But dues still had to go up.

Hardly a surprise for Arizona lawyers consigned more to stoic resignation than sulky rancor. In four consecutive $15 annual increments starting next year, dues will increase an overall 13% for a total of $60. By 2019, Arizona lawyers will be paying $520 per year. And by separate motion, the board also imposed higher fees for in-house counsel; admissions on motion; pro hac vice; and MCLE late fees.

No matter that Arizona presently finds itself among the ‘leaders’ in highest costs to practice bars in the U. S. On an apples-to-apples dues comparison, Arizona is currently among the top 5 of the country’s 33 mandatory bars behind Alaska at $660 and Hawaii at $522. And not that going inactive saves you, either. Inactive members pay $265 annually, highest among all jurisdictions and equal to or higher than what 20 other jurisdictions charge active bar members.

‘Quo Vadis?’
When a bare majority of the bar’s governors voted to stay the course, they meant a fully-loaded ‘full-service,’ ‘first-class’ bar. That’s an objective made more attainable when others foot the bill. So no need for tea leaves to read or for bones to throw to divine the bar’s high-priced future.
Miscellaneous 603
But does this mean members are forever destined to sing a merry refrain to “Whither Thou Goest?” That was really the nub of what John Phelps asked. Do members want or need an organization trying to do everything from protecting the public from its lawyers; to regulating the profession; to advancing the administration of justice; to educating lawyers; and ostensibly, to enhancing the legal profession? Um, don’t mind the mule going blind, just load the wagon.

Or will members eventually resist the appropriation of limitless resources and instead ask the bar to stop trying to be all things for all people? That’s what happened in Washington State in 2012 when a majority of lawyers objecting to persistent mission creep in a tough economy rolled back dues 25% by referendum. Or should the bar just limit itself to lawyer discipline and licensing? That’s what Nebraska’s high court ordered its bar to do last December. Nebraska dues fell from $335 to $98.

Besides, do all those multi-headed missions even do any good? Someone should find out and I don’t mean having the bureaucratic stakeholders do the asking.

People 1055Looking to the future.
Lawyers increasingly face cost and compensation pressures from clients who are demanding more for less. Meantime the delivery of legal services continues liberalization allowing non-lawyer legal document preparers; non-lawyer owned global law firms; and emerging information technologies to compete in the legal marketplace. At the same time, young lawyers burdened with six-figure student loan debt continue facing a historic oversupply of lawyers in a fearsome job market where only half will find full-time, long-term lawyer employment.

These days, the legal academies and legal establishment pay lip service to the changes in the profession. But in truth, girded by group-think and an abiding faith in the status quo, very few actually do much transformational work. Sure a handful of bars belatedly adopted mandatory mentoring programs purporting to help new lawyers transition into practice. Always better at self-congratulation than self-assessment, those bars will be hard-pressed to measure efficacy. Will those mandatory programs actually provide benefits? Or are they window-dressing hiding one more bar revenue stream?

Several years ago, lawyer and legal ethicist Richard Zitrin criticized his California bar in a different context for its then perceived lapses. He observed, “On the other hand, the State Bar has unfortunately long been more interested in how things look rather than how they really are.” Here in Arizona, though, when it comes to the high cost to practice, count on both being true. A full service bar looks expensive and it really is.


 

Q & A with Candidate Chad Belville

Chad’s Candidate Statement:

State Bar Questions posed to all candidates:Why are you interested in running for election to the Board of Governors? What do you believe are the significant issues facing the members today? If elected, how would you hope to address these issues?

“As a committee chair I have seen and experienced how the Board of Governors operates and have been thoroughly disappointed. The board operates with little transparency, rarely seeks input and does not communicate well with members of the Bar. Finances are always going to be an issue, but I believe the best approaches are pragmatic, long-term plans with input from the members and committees. I want to see each section, committee and department justify its existence. I want to change the budget process so departments, committees and sections are more involved with their own destinies and publish the State Bar’s budgets and expenditures in more user-friendly formats. Too many decisions come from the Board of Governors down to the members without notice or input from the members, and the dues increase issue is a prime example. I understand that dues have not been increased in 10 years, but the board first approached this issue without even attempting to educate or build support for a dues increase. In a governing body like the BOG, arriving at the right answer the wrong way still makes it wrong. I would be a better communicator and pragmatic problem solver.”

Follow-up Questions:

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1) Can you elaborate further on what just transpired with respect to the latest dues increase?

“It has been a decade since dues have been raised and even though the BOG has known for a long time dues would eventually fall short of expenses, they failed to act. This past year, facing a shortfall, the BOG was finally forced to act. Instead of starting early, informing members of the financial situation, the BOG worked within itself to study the issue and present solutions to itself with very little input or even opportunity for input from members. The dues increase came as a surprise to many of us, myself included. If the BOG had brought up dues and finances two years ago, sought input, created a real study committee composed of more than just its own members, it might have developed some grass roots support and even those members that opposed a dues increase would at least have known it was coming.”

2) In specifics, how would you solve the transparency, input and communication issues raised in your statement?

“”The format of BOG meetings was recently changed so that issues are brought up one day and voted on the next. Under the prior format, issues were presented, discussed, and tabled until the following month when the vote would take place. I think the small savings realized by reducing the number of BOG meetings and compressing the time between discussion and vote has hurt transparency. I would schedule 8 BOG two-day meetings per year, and only allow minor votes to take place without a month of time for comment and input. I would actively seek the input from the various county bars, sections, and independent associations.”

3) What do you believe to be the top needs of members?

“The most glaring need right now is a governing body that listens to its members before it makes decisions affecting those members.

4) Again, in specific terms, how would you reconcile the bar’s express mission of “protecting the public of Arizona” with serving members?

“Protecting the public primarily means enforcing rules against lawyers who harm their clients, exhibit a real potential to harm clients, or harm the professionalism of the Bar as a whole. I served as an elected prosecutor in Iowa. I had a limited budget and was charged with protecting the public. I did make choices and drew bright lines as to what alleged offenses warranted the deployment of my office’s resources. It was like being a referee in a rugby match – if a whistle was blown, I had to decide whether to issue that player a warning, put that player in the penalty box for a determined period of time, or eject that player from the game. Too many blown whistles for petty infractions does not make for a good game, nor does a Bar disciplinary body that spends too much time on minor infractions of solo attorneys while ignoring offenses by big firm attorneys that have the resources to fight. Our Bar spends a disproportionate amount of money on discipline, I think it takes a disproportionate amount of action against solo or small firm lawyers, and should be rebuilt starting with its own mission statement and an independent ombudsman. As a Bar association we are served by holding our members to high standards, but only if those standards are applied equally to all members.”

5) If you could be king for a day, what, if anything, would you change with respect to how the state bar is presently run?

“I would charge the disciplinary section with revising its mission and justifying the existence of every staffer, create an independent ombudsman or other oversight for the actions of the Bar in relation to its members, exchange the current building with one that has only the facilities needed by the Bar, revise the budget reporting to reduce misinterpretation of those figures, and require each budget line item to be justified. I did this with the County Attorney’s office when I served; my annual budget stayed flat but I increased compensation for staff. The office was properly staffed but the budget bloated in many areas. I was able to increase staff pay, improve morale, decrease the time from indictment to case conclusion, improve public relations and outreach, and keep a flat budget for years. I think our Bar could reduce its spending and increase the services provided.”

6) The bar operates with almost a $15 million dollar budget of which well over $8 million is compensation and benefits. Dues are already among the top 3 highest among mandatory bars. Any specific thoughts?

“It is my understanding the Arizona Supreme Court previously had to force a dues increase on the Bar because the BOG failed to act. We do pay annual dues that are higher than most states but if we have a responsive Bar that provides support for the members $500 a year can be justified. With our current state of affairs I do not believe we are getting our money’s worth.”

7) Finally, would you modify the mission of the state bar? If yes, how would you do it?

“I believe the current mission statement is adequate and would not seek to change it until more serious issues are resolved.”