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Despite cost, court sees value in State Bar audit

As the state Supreme Court inches closer toward a performance audit of the State Bar of Wisconsin, some say the endeavor would be a waste of time and money.

Rules governing the State Bar allow the justices to order periodic reviews of the organization at the expense of members. Bar leaders estimate the total cost of a new audit will be $82,080.

The bar already has the resources to cover all but $11,330 of the cost, said State Bar President Jim Brennan. According to the bar’s breakdown of costs, $50,250 would be spent compensating State Bar staff designated to perform the audit and $20,500 would go toward overhead, costs for which the bar already has money available.

The additional cost will be a budgetary burden, Brennan said, at a time when the organization has no room for potentially frivolous spending.

“I think it’s a waste,” he said, “of members’ money.”

The justices voted, 6-1, on Jan. 11 to advance discussion on formation of a committee under Supreme Court Rule 10.10 to evaluate how the bar functions in terms of meeting member needs. Their decision was rooted in an ongoing review of a petition to abolish the mandatory bar, which the court is holding in abeyance, pending its decision on an audit.

The last time the court audited the bar was 1981. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson has recommended an evaluation committee be formed by November to begin the process of a new audit.

Justice Patrick Crooks said he supports the idea of a review and said he doesn’t think the cost is overly excessive, especially if the audit reveals deficiencies in the bar’s performance.

“I think it is really just personnel costs and people being diverted to do this project,” he said. “So it’s really an investment of time more than anything else.”

Lisa Roys, the bar’s public affairs director, said the bar does not know how much it spent on the previous audit. After the previous audit, the review committee recommended the bar remain a mandatory organization to best preserve member benefits; a recommendation the court adopted.

A new audit will likely come to the same conclusion, said attorney Nate Cade, a member of the State Bar’s Board of Governors. The effort would therefore be a waste of attorney dues, he said.

“There is no evidence that the bar is doing anything improper,” said Cade, an attorney with Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan LLP, Milwaukee. “I think any results would show that the bar is generally doing a good job and there are a few areas they need to work on.”

The bar’s Board of Governors has not taken a position on the potential audit.

As the lone justice to vote against future discussion of an audit committee, Annette Ziegler said she is skeptical of the value of another review, given the cost.

“I would not automatically do it,” she said. “I would not authorize the bar to spend money to create a committee unless it would really be worthwhile.”

Ziegler also said she opposed the formation of a review committee because the court should not base its decision to audit the bar due to questions raised as a result of the voluntary bar petition filed by attorneys Steven Levine and Jim Thiel. Ziegler said the petition and the potential audit are separate issues.

Brennan said he is comfortable with the court mandating an audit, but anticipates the results would support the current structure of the bar.

For that reason, he questioned the logic behind mandating members pay for a review.

“The court can always order bar to pay for it,” he said. “That’s their call. It’s certainly not my call and it’s not the call of the leadership of the State Bar.”


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