The prospect of paying to practice law after age 70 is something emeritus lawyers in Wisconsin are willing to accept, so long as they are not mandated to take continuing legal education.
Currently, attorneys in Wisconsin can opt for emeritus status at 70. With that comes the benefit of not having to pay dues, assessments or take CLE.
But State Bar leaders are considering a change to force attorneys to pay half-dues, currently $112, if they decide to take emeritus status and also maintain the standard 15 CLE credits per annual reporting period.
The bar’s Governance Committee pitched the plan Friday to the Board of Governors. Emeritus subcommittee chair Bill Fale said the proposal is based on an anticipated explosion in the number of attorneys eligible for emeritus status in the next decade.
“The demographics of the bar as to where we’re going really mandate that if you continue practicing,” he told the board, “you have an investment as a group in this organization. And in that regard everyone should have some involvement financially.”
According to Fale, the current roster of 1,493 emeritus lawyers could double in the next five years and then double again in the following five years.
While the proposal has yet to be endorsed by the board and would have to be approved by Wisconsin Supreme Court, elements of the plan irked some senior lawyers.
Specifically, board member Joe Melli, an active emeritus Madison attorney, said that forcing lawyers to take CLE after assuming emeritus status is unnecessary.
“I think the rationale is that by the time you are 70 you have done enough legal work,” he said Friday, “so you know what you need to learn to continue (practicing).”
Melli said it’s common for senior lawyers to seek out CLE even after taking emeritus status, but that it shouldn’t be mandated. The state Supreme Court in 1977 implemented the system mandating 30 hours every two years for active attorneys, with the exemption for emeritus lawyers.
But CLE Committee chair Paul Swanson said with the expected increase in emeritus lawyers, it might be time to revisit the rule.
“That was more than 30 years ago and a lot has happened in the practice of law,” he said. “If I was still practicing past 70, I’d sure as hell be keeping myself abreast of any changes, especially in our day and age.”
Swanson said his committee planned to discuss the CLE component for emeritus lawyers and consult the Board of Bar Examiners.
One option to explore for the immediate future, he said, is to provide incentives for voluntary CLE by offering courses at a reduced cost.
“The bar could make it easy and cut some sort of break,” Swanson said. “I think it’s a great idea now to get senior lawyers to take CLE.”
BBE director Jacquelynn Rothstein said the possibility of emeritus CLE hasn’t been brought to her attention, but regardless of age, attorneys have an obligation to keep current in their area of law if they continue to practice.
“Ethics rules require that attorneys be competent to practice in an area,” she said. “They shouldn’t be practicing in any area which they are not competent to do so.”
Melli could not be reached for additional comment, but during the meeting said that while willing to pay half-dues, senior lawyers shouldn’t be forced to take CLE.
“The way it’s presented,” he said, “it’s a stick in the eye to the seniors.”
Fale said that wasn’t the intention of the proposal and the Governance Committee plans to meet with Melli and other senior attorneys to try an come to an agreement before bringing the full proposal back to the board.
“I don’t know that we ever looked at this as a package deal,” Fale said, “but hopefully we can work with the seniors and I think there is room to come up with a solution.”