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WSBA Sections Workgroup feedback

This page has been created to serve as a clearinghouse of written input sent to the WSBA Sections Policy Workgroup. The views expressed here are my own as an WSBA member, or those of the authors of the various documents linked below.


What is the Sections Policy Workgroup?

In October 2015 a Workgroup convened to discuss administrative improvements to the WSBA’s sections program. There are 28 sections in the bar that represent various practice areas and fields of interests.

Earlier this month the Workgroup issued draft policy proposals (available here) that would substantially alter the Sections program. These changes include:

  • Pooled financial resources. Currently each section operates its own budget, and a portion of your section membership fee goes directly to this fund. The Workgroup proposes to pool all section resources. On this approach, section membership fee could be used to fund activities of any other Bar section.
  • Forfeiture of financial reserves. Through careful planning, your leadership has built up substantial financial reserves (about $47,000) to ensure continuity of programming. As I read the Workgroup’s proposal, our Section’s reserve fund would be forfeited and placed in the pooled resources for all sections.
  • Lost autonomy. Volunteer Section leadership currently has substantial autonomy in our budgeting and programming decisions. On the Workgroup’s proposal these decisions would be subject to approval or veto by the Bar’s staff.

Feedback memoranda from sections

Leadership from the following WSBA sections have submitted memoranda to the Sections Policy Workgroup. If you have additional documents please reach me at greg@soundimmigration.com.

Input from WSBA members

The following are emails sent from WSBA members to the Board of Governor’s representatives and/or the Sections Policy Workgroup. Shared here with permission of the authors.

Dainen N. Penta (2011-2012 President, Washington Young Lawyers Division)

I’m writing to you as a concerned member of District 7S to express my strong *opposition* to the draft Sections policy changes discussed in a 12/30/2015 WSBA memorandum to section leaders. These proposed changes will likely make their way to the BOG for consideration, and unfortunately they make evident that WSBA is not listening to its members or even to its own leadership, and has failed to learn any lessons from the 2011 dues-reduction referendum.

It has become clear that the bureaucracy and rigidity that may be positive attributes for a licensing and regulatory agency are fundamentally at odds with the creativity, esprit de corps, and entrepreneurial spirit that imbue (healthy) voluntary professional and trade associations and that inspire its members to lead their organization. Perhaps it is time for another dues-reduction referendum, or a unified movement by WSBA members to de-unify WSBA.

The proposed section changes and the stated justifications for those changes are eerily reminiscent of the process by which the Washington Young Lawyers Division (WYLD) was “transitioned” to a standing committee of the bar. This decision was universally panned by state and local bar associations across America (see, “ABA YLD Affiliate Loses Funding from Big Bar,” http://bit.ly/23jFfzX). While nearly every state bar young lawyer entity in America wrote letters opposed to that proposal and in support of WSBA’s young lawyer leadership, this chorus of voices seems to have been all but ignored by WSBA. Similarly, I understand that there are 18 sections (of the 28) who oppose the proposed changes and many section members who are writing to express their opposition to the changes being imposed upon them. I hope that the BOG will take section leaders’ feedback seriously.

In 2012, after the dues referendum had passed and after the BOG voted to eliminate the Young Lawyers Division, WSBA’s then-CFO came to the June 2012 WYLD Board of Trustees meeting in Yakima and told us — told my board — that the WYLD was “low hanging fruit” and that WSBA had been wanting to eliminate the WYLD for a very long time. We were speechless.

It would appear from the current proposals that WSBA also views Section leadership as so much “low hanging fruit.” The proposed policy changes will only continue to add to the large number of current and former WSBA volunteer leaders who quickly become disenfranchised and disengaged due to a constant power struggle with WSBA and strife with staff over “administrivia” such as expense reports (I am aware that one solo-practitioner former Committee Chair had an expense report delayed for 60 days due to a concern that a certain type of sushi she had for lunch might be alcohol and was therefore not reimbursable).

I have reviewed several section leaders’ letters opposing the proposed policy changes, and I agree heartily with the leaders. WSBA makes the odd claim that “no other part of the WSBA” may build and maintain reserves (October 21, 2015 presentation to the Sections Workgroup [which, interestingly, appears to include no current Section leaders]). Are Sections not part of WSBA? In other parts of this same presentation WSBA confirms that they are, and expresses concern about the possible “independent legal status” of the sections. To the point, only a glance over the WSBA budget is needed to see that WSBA is authorized to maintain and build reserves, and does so, in a variety of areas — CLE, facilities, and more. This stated justification for the current proposals is a poor one at best, and WSBA seems to be taking inconsistent positions about whether Sections are or are not part of WSBA (apparently, they are not for purposes of justifying staff veto over section leaders’ decisions, but they are for purposes of taking the position that sections should not be allowed to maintain reserves).

WSBA claims to have “reduced its footprint” — such as in the most recent email invitation I received giving 1 weeks’ advance notice of a reception to celebrate WSBA’s office remodel — yet it has actually *increased* the number of FTE staff from a total of 138 FTE in 2008 (according to the Department of Retirement Systems) to the current headcount of approximately 144 FTE. When I review the sections “infographics” it appears that if staffing and overhead were reduced, the number of sections projected to operate “in the black” for FY2016 would be far more than 4 of the 28 (note also that RPPT is only projected to be $13 “in the red” for FY16). We know from WSBA’s response to the recent Practice of Law Board resignations, however, that “[t]he integrity, competence and character of WSBA staff are unquestionable, and it is undeserved and unconscionable for individuals to attack and discredit them” so I can only assume that the option to reduce staffing and overhead is outside of the question and was not considered by the Sections Workgroup. I note that WSBA’s own statement of guiding principles starts with a declaration that “WSBA will operate a well-managed association that supports its members….”

Unfortunately, the option to “consciously uncouple” from WSBA is not a real option for so long as we are a mandatory bar collecting license fees. However, I will not voluntarily pay to engage, or give my time as a volunteer, to a staff-driven “command and control” regime where volunteer leaders lack the ability to make even the most basic decisions about how to carry out their work. Unfortunately, this has been the experience for many current and former WSBA volunteers and has driven many of our best bar leaders to seek out leadership positions in voluntary bars including minority bar associations, KCBA, and in particular the ABA, rather than be subject to the bureaucratic nightmare that is the WSBA. The WSBA’s ongoing “leadership drain” is symptomatic of an unhealthy organization that is out of touch with its members and with its own leaders.

This quote by Maj. Gen. Colin Powell sums it up best: “The day that soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either is a failure of leadership.” Squadrons of members who should be WSBA’s best and most devoted leaders have lost confidence.

For the 2016 license fee renewal cycle I have chosen not to renew my section memberships in Creditor-Debtor Rights, Real Property Probate & Trust, and the Solo & Small Practice Section, and choose to focus my time and energy on other associations that appreciate my contributions and value the many hours I devote to bar leadership and improving our profession.

Bruce Gardiner (Treasurer, Solo and Small Practice Section)

In 2010, the WSBA came to the sections and explained that the portion of the section dues paid to the WSBA to cover staffing of the sections did not cover the actual  cost to the WSBA.  Please see the attachment Section Memo 7-29-10.  The WSBA decided to increase the member fee to cover those costs, starting at first to the WSBA covering 25% of the added cost, but increasing it each year to finally remove any subsidy.  In 2010, the costs were calculated to be $17.67, and the fee charged the
sections was $13.25.

In 2016, the fee now charged the sections is $18.75 per member, and there has been no showing that the cost to the WSBA has increased substantially over the $17.67 – but there have been many section complaints about the lack of staff supported being provided.  In the 2016 budget, the SSP section will be paying $17,812.50 to the WSBA based on 950 members – will we receive $17,812.50 in staff support?
One should also remember that staff support of a CLE is charged to the CLE, and should not be included in WSBA section member costs.

The main reason put forth for the radical alteration in the sections’ financial structure is that the WSBA is subsidizing the sections via the cost of staff support.

This email comes to you from the benefit of institutional memory – not having to elect a new Treasurer every year.

Erin Sperger

I have several concerns with the workgroup’s radical proposal:

1. I do not feel the WSBA is as supportive to its members as it should be and does not provide relevant resources that I need as a solo attorney. I chose to join the solo small practice section because it fills in the gaps and provides the resources and tools I do not receive from the Bar. This section is able to provide what we need because it asks us what we need and our leadership uses its autonomy in budgeting to respond to those needs. Out leadership has done an excellent job growing this section and, as a result, our section has put on much higher quality conferences and CLE’s. Better conferences attract venders who in turn support our ability to keep attracting better speakers. I do not know the financial details of this section, but it is just logical. In light of this it is extremely unfair to commandeer the surplus our section leaders have worked really hard to build up.

2. There are some sections that I absolutely do not want to support. If my money is going to be used to support those sections or CLE’s about those areas of law, then I will be forced to withdrawal from all sections. This is not fair and I know other members of this section feel the same way.

3. I am very concerned about how involved the bar as a whole is becoming in politics. It seems apparent from reviewing the last few months’ minutes and other memorandum and executive summaries, that the bar needs our money to support non-lawyers such as the LLLT program. Although not entirely relevant, I am very disappointed in the way the Bar gone about this whole process. The WSBA has no business promoting or overseeing non-lawyers, especially if it takes away from the resources they provide to actual lawyers. The WSBA is also becoming increasingly political in other arenas. Perhaps it should be reminded that not all members agree with its political agenda and I do not appreciate the Bar representing that we are a united front. I direct your attention to the WSBA Bylaws section IV (D).

4. Taking away section autonomy will drive up the costs of CLEs and other conferences. If the WSBA has to approve programs it will take staff time for which we will bear the cost.

5. In reading the minutes I was shocked to learn that the board intentionally excluded section leadership from the Workgroup. This shows their true intention to make these changes regardless of section feedback or opposition. This is OUR bar, not the workgroup’s. The sections and its members should drive any changes, or at the very least approve them.

6. You may not be the appropriate person to voice this concern to, but I am generally very concerned about non-lawyers making decisions about what lawyers can and can’t do. The definition of a profession is that it is self-regulated.

In sum, I oppose the Workgroup’s proposal in every way. If it is passed I will quit the Solo Small Firm Section unless I can somehow opt out of having any of my money pay for other sections that I find morally repugnant.

Will Harlock

I’ve received a couple of emails in the past couple of days about WSBA’s plans to take over the Sections – I absolutely disagree with this course of action.  Why has nobody heard about this effort until so late?  The last day for feedback is Friday.

The WSBA already benefits greatly from the activities of the sections, both in developing professionalism in section members, and financially.  I think if the Sections are taken over by WSBA, their reserves forfeited to WSBA’s GOF, and autonomy ceded to WSBA staff re: programming & budgeting for the section, the Sections will cease to exist, or at least really scale back on their activities and member involvement.

I strongly support the Sections who are submitting responses in opposition to this proposal, and I for one would be very upset and disappointed at the WSBA trying to fix something that isn’t broken.

Adrienne Stewart

I am a new, solo-practitioner here in the 9th District. I offer low-bono services and currently have no full-fee paying clients. I am very careful about where I put any extra funds, which isn’t much after bar dues, legal malpractice insurance, expensive CLEs, etc. So when I do put money into joining a section, it’s because I really want to join that section and be a part of its offerings.  I heard that there was a movement afoot to pool financial resources, forfeit financial reserves, and that the section leadership would lose decision making abilities.
As a member of the Solo and small firm section, the family law section and the elder law section, I want to add my voice to the many who strongly opposes such a move. I think that each section should be able to operate its own accounts, and raise money and spend money as it sees fit. I take advantage of the free CLEs it offers as the ones the Bar puts on are extraordinarily expensive for a solo practitioner. Further, it would be wildly unfair to force sections with reserves to forfeit those reserves, as people who gave that money did not intend to have it go into a general pool.
It is also my hope that the section’s leadership will maintain the autonomy they have. I enjoy the access I have to the leaders of these sections and they have been tremendously helpful to me as my business takes flight. Nothing on these fronts needs to change.
WSBA Sections Workgroup feedback
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Greg McLawsen

I’m proud to be the founder of Sound Immigration. My job is to work behind the scenes to ensure our clients have an outstanding experience at our firm. I’m passionate about reinventing the practice of law to make it work better for those we serve. I work hard to identify the best available technology to make our firm convenient for clients. I look to other industries, like real estate and the restaurant business, to learn about practice that will help serve our clients better.

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