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State Bar defends petition to change emeritus status, offer new Senior Active membership

By: Michaela Paukner, [email protected]//February 26, 2021//

State Bar defends petition to change emeritus status, offer new Senior Active membership

By: Michaela Paukner, [email protected]//February 26, 2021//

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State Bar of Wisconsin officials are defending a petition that seeks to modify the bar membership status of older members, a proposal opposed by the Wisconsin Board of Bar Examiners.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court held a hearing on Rule Petition 20-06 on Wednesday afternoon. The petition asks the court to modify the State Bar’s emeritus membership status, establish a Senior Active status and allow non-active members to do pro bono work.

The new emeritus classification is for members 70 years of age and older who only want to do pro bono work. These members would not be required to pay dues or other fees. Currently, an emeritus member has all the privileges of active membership but does not have to pay dues after age 70.

Jill Kastner, past president of the State Bar, said a task force found that attorneys are puzzled by what emeritus status means and some inactive members have difficulty obtaining emeritus status following retirement.

Those difficulties have led to the establishment of the proposed Senior Active status. Attorneys who are 75 and older who still want to practice law would be designated as Senior Active members. These members would only have to pay half the amount of State Bar dues normally owed and complete a minimum of 15 hours of approved continuing legal education, rather than 30 hours. Senior Active status would automatically apply to members in this age group starting on July 1. The only exception would be for attorneys who submitted a written notice of enrollment in a different membership field.

Justice Brian Hagedorn asked Kastner about the likely financial effects that the proposed changes would have on the State Bar’s budget and older attorneys. He said it seemed to set up an incentive structure that could push older attorneys out of practice. Kastner said the immediate effects of the change would be negligible, and the Senior Active status was set up to avoid the situations Hagedorn was asking about.

“By creating a Senior Active status, those 75 and older, it allows them to wind down their business, only paying half dues and taking half CLE,” Kastner said.

Dean Dietrich, who served as past president of the State Bar’s senior lawyer division, said the task force chose 75 as the starting age for Senior Active membership because more attorneys are choosing to practice longer and living longer in general.

The petition also asks the Supreme Court to allow inactive members of the State Bar to provide pro bono services. Inactive members would not have to pay dues or fees, even if they chose to do pro bono work in Wisconsin.

Kastner said the intent of the change is to improve access to justice by encouraging more attorneys to volunteer their time. The proposal also includes new guidelines about pro bono work, including a supervision requirement and certification with the State Bar.

Jacquelynn Rothstein, director of the Board of Bar examiners, said the board opposes the proposed changes. She called the petition “internally inconsistent and confusing” and thought the membership statuses would be hard to track.

“The rationale for this new classification system is without a sound foundation and appears to be arbitrary in its application,” Rothstein said.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley asked why the court should discredit the State Bar’s three years of work on the petition and buy-in from its members. Rothstein reiterated the inconsistencies and suggested letting all emeritus members practice pro bono if the goal is to improve access to justice in Wisconsin.

The state Supreme Court will announce its decision on the petition at a later date. A recording of the rule hearing is available via WisconsinEye.


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