Late dues can lead to confusion over status
If Wisconsin attorneys fail to pay their bar dues by the Oct. 31 final deadline, the state bar website will show them as suspended – even if the bar hasn’t formally suspended them.
Attorneys can avoid being suspended for not paying their dues by the deadline if they pay before formal notification letter are sent to courts. If an attorney does so, they are not considered to be suspended. But the website automatically updates at the deadline to label each attorney that failed to pay on time as suspended. The result is that for as much as a week or more, the website reflects potentially inaccurate information about an attorney’s status.
Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Ellen R. Brostrom ran into the situation this year. Because of personal reasons, she was among those who paid late and she was briefly listed as suspended on the website.
But according to the bar, Brostrom was never actually suspended. Her payment was received on Nov. 3 – before notification letters went out – and her status on the website was updated the following day.
Brostrom said she would have preferred that the site accurately reflect her status, but she didn’t view it as a significant issue.
“I think the simple process of calling the State Bar to say ‘hey, is this accurate?’ would eliminate any confusion,” she said.
While Brostrom said she doesn’t think it’s a big issue, other attorneys say the bar needs to be more vigilant in making sure the website is accurate.
“The State Bar needs to clean up its act and not put suspensions up until it follows its own procedure of sending out notifications,” Racine attorney Lincoln K. Murphy said.
In an effort to provide more consistency, Murphy suggested that the bar take a more rigid approach for failure to pay dues, given that lawyers in essence have four months to cut a check prior to the threat of suspension.
“If you don’t pay by Nov. 1, you are automatically suspended,” he said. “The bar should just be consistent on that.”
Bar spokesman Tom Solberg said about 500 attorneys failed to pay their annual membership dues this year by the Nov. 1 deadline and were automatically listed as suspended on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s website. Historically, about half of those attorneys who fail to pay their dues by the final deadline do so prior to suspension notifications being sent to local courts, which usually happens 10 days or so after the deadline.
As long as they get their dues in before the suspension notifications go out, there appears to be little incentive for attorneys not to wait until the last minute to pay.
Invoices are mailed in May and due on July 1. Those who haven’t paid are sent a reminder during the first week of August with a notice that a $25 late fee will be imposed for those dues received after Sept. 1.
A final notice is mailed during the last week of September. It includes the late fee and notice that the member will be automatically suspended if payment is not received by Oct. 31, which this year fell on a Sunday, so the deadline was extended to Nov. 1.
Milwaukee attorney Robert R. Henak agreed that the bar has a responsibility to provide accurate information.
“That’s a problem,” Henak said. “It can have a significantly negative effect on a lawyer’s relationship with clients.”
Murphy agrees that it can have a negative effect on relations with clients. Even though it’s the attorney’s responsibility to pay on time, a suspension notice on the website can be a warning sign to clients.
“You get reminders,” Murphy said. “Is it then indicative of how you run your law practice and not get things done? If I was a potential client, I’d have concerns about whether that attorney can handle my case.”
According to Solberg, a “substantial” number of members pay their dues between July 1 and Oct. 31, and the organization has never received a complaint about a mislabeled suspension on the website.
“If they have paid, they are not suspended,” he said. “We treat it as timely until that letter goes out to judges, after which time a formal suspension takes effect.”
The website is updated daily to reflect payments, but Solberg conceded that there is a “lag” in the time between when the website may reflect a dues suspension and when it actually takes effect.
He said the bar recognizes the problem and could look into ways to provide better consistency, possibly through some additional notation for attorneys who are late in paying, but have not been suspended.
“I think the solution for most people would be to make a phone call to the bar,” Solberg said.
Solberg said the suspended label is a consequence of not paying bar dues on time and the best remedy is to cut a check prior to the threat of suspension.
Henak agreed that ultimately, the responsibility is on the attorney to decide whether or not they want to pay on time.
“I have no sympathy for people that end up getting suspended for that reason,” he said.
Brostrom said she has already taken steps to avoid any confusion as to her status next year.
She set up an auto reminder for June 25 on her electronic calendar.
“I don’t want to end up paying late dues again,” she said.
Jack Zemlicka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.