The D.C. Bar Board of Governors voted earlier this month to raise member dues by $10, a decision that has drawn criticism from some board members who say it was an unnecessary increase and not in bar members' best interests.
Active bar members will pay $265 in annual dues beginning July 1, up from $255 last year. Judicial member dues will also go up, from $127 to $130, while dues for inactive members will hold at $130.
Board member and local solo practitioner Gregory Smith said his opposition to the increase wasn't so much about the amount, which he acknowledged wouldn't make a difference to most lawyers, as the principle and what it would fund. Under the approved budget, the bar would continue to set aside a little over $500,000 annually for future building needs, which could include buying space, as opposed to leasing as it does now.
"This is for something we don’t need and it's taking money out of people's pockets unnecessarily," Smith said.
Smith was one of three board members to vote against the dues increase on April 9. He was joined by Vytas Vergeer, legal director for local nonprofit Bread for the City, and Daniel Schumack of Schumack Ryals in Fairfax, Va.
D.C. Bar President Thomas Williamson Jr., a senior counsel at Covington & Burling, pointed to a recent study by the American Bar Association listing the D.C. Bar as having the lowest dues of any mandatory bar. He said the dues increase was driven by growing expenditures, from new full-time staff positions to merit increases and other salary adjustments for current employees.
According to a report by the bar's budget committee, next year's operating budget would provide a surplus of more than $1.2 million from dues-funded activities. Of those surplus funds, $560,900 would be set aside for future building needs and the remaining $644,300 would go towards the bar's goal of having a reserve to fund three months of operating expenses.
Williamson said the bar had put funds into the operating reserve and the building fund for several years based on recommendations from bar committees and experts. He said the finance committee recommended an operating reserve of up to six months of expenses, but bar leaders opted for the lower recommendation of three months. He noted the reserve may reach its goal after the 2014 fiscal year.
The plan for the building fund is to set aside $7.5 million before the bar's current lease expires in 2021, according to Williamson. He said the funds would give the bar flexibility to make renovations if it stayed in its current location, to sign a new lease elsewhere, or to buy a business condo. He said the majority of the board recognized that by approving small increases, "you wouldn't have to make dramatic dues increases to pay for anything because you're spreading that cost over an extended period of time."
Vergeer said he didn't think saving for a new building was the best use of bar funds, and questioned the need for a “conservative” operating reserve amount. "If there's that much money around, I'd rather see them do other things with it…as opposed to making sure they have as luxurious a building as we do now," he said.
"I don't like the message it sends: That no matter how well we're doing financially, we're going to keep raising your bar dues," he said.
Schumack said he didn't think the dues increase was necessary to meet the bar's operating expenses and that he opposed funding the building plan because he was against the bar owning real estate.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals, which exercises oversight of the bar, sets a maximum amount for member dues and gives the bar flexibility to set annual dues until they hit that ceiling. The current ceiling, in effect since July 2009, is $285, up from the $195 ceiling that had been in effect since 2004.
The budget is a done deal, but Smith said he hopes candidates running in this year's bar election would address the dues issue and take a position on future increases. Voting begins April 30 and finishes May 24.