Why the State Bar of Michigan needs to be fully funded


by Dana Warnez   |   Michigan Bar Journal


A special message from State Bar of Michigan President Dana Warnez

No one likes a fee increase — no one, including me. As we all know, however, wants often conflict with needs. The Representative Assembly in April overwhelmingly approved recommendation of an $80 fee increase to fund State Bar of Michigan operations. This would be the first fee increase for the State Bar of Michigan in 18 years, and the recommended increase is LESS THAN the rate of inflation.

This increase was recommended because the Representative Assembly recognizes that the State Bar needs to be fully funded. While none of us like to pay more, I ask all my fellow attorneys to recognize and support the need for an increase that allows for the continuation of State Bar functions.

Let me be clear: That is exactly what the proposed increase would do. It simply fully funds the State Bar.

In response to the Representative Assembly’s proposal, the Michigan Supreme Court has issued an order accepting comment on a reduced fee increase of $50. This option would require the State Bar of Michigan to make significant cuts that would jeopardize core programs and services. Public comment on the order is open through April 1, 2022.

I am glad that the Court recognized that an increase certainly is worth talking about, but I sincerely hope that more consideration will be given to the Representative Assembly’s recommendation to fully fund the State Bar. Some of you might initially be a bit put off by the size of the recommended increase. So was I, until I was reminded how long we have operated on the fee established in 2004, and being convinced that the recommended increase is what is needed to meet the needs of our members and the public. No one likes paying more — but we are paying far less than most other attorneys nationwide. With the price increase, Michigan’s rate would be simply average, and we would still pay less than attorneys in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, and many other states. Given the bar’s track record for operational prudence, we can reasonably expect the proposed increase to last for at least another seven years and quite likely for ten or more years.

For nearly two decades, our license fees have not increased. Organizations that operate for almost 20 years on the same basic revenue stream, successfully putting off a license fee increase for as long as possible, shouldn’t be punished by being denied a responsible, less-than-inflationary adjustment now.

As evidenced by the huge timespan since the last funding increase, the State Bar of Michigan constantly evolves, improves services, and does more with less. We’re modernizing the license fee process to make it easier and more convenient for attorneys and to significantly cut costs. We’ve developed cutting edge programs to serve the legal community, including mental health services through the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program as well as critical physical needs through SOLACE. We’re innovating to provide programming to ensure all of us are always practice ready, as recently seen through the development of a Technology Competency corner within the Practice Management Resource Center.

I dare say the vast majority of us recognize the inevitability of needing to pay some sort of fee in order to be licensed to practice. Unlike other states, our license fees do far more than simply give us our bar cards. The State Bar of Michigan serves us. It serves us as attorneys, and it serves all people of Michigan. The State Bar of Michigan helps to lead efforts to create a more accessible justice system, advance the legal profession, and improve public understanding of our work and the legal system.

Without an adequate funding increase, we know critically important programs could be in jeopardy. Here’s just a sample:

  • The ethics helpline, which helps 10 to 20 attorneys a day navigate intensely challenging issues, supports our strategic plan strategy to educate members on ethical rules and regulations.

  • LJAP, which provides mental health services and coordinates the SOLACE program mentioned previously, is part of our work to help new lawyers be practice-ready and to support all members’ professional competence.

  • The e-Journal provides summaries of the latest opinions from the Michigan Supreme Court, Michigan Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Sixth Circuit five days a week. More than 2,200 summaries were provided last year, a key tool to provide education and resources to attorneys.

  • Public policy initiatives that improve the functioning of the courts and increase the availability of legal services are core to the work of the State Bar of Michigan. Working from a broad base of diverse viewpoints, the State Bar of Michigan identifies, develops, and champions changes that advance Michigan’s justice system. For example, the State Bar of Michigan led the effort to modernize civil discovery rules — bringing together stakeholders, drafting revised rules, and successfully advocating for the rules’ adoption. The State Bar has also been integral in leading efforts to improve Michigan’s criminal indigent defense system.

  • Critical and direct support for greater access to justice includes advocacy for the legal aid community and its funding, and maintenance of Michigan’s pro bono service infrastructure.

Attorneys have the unique privilege of being self-governed through the State Bar of Michigan — instead of the state of Michigan as is typical of other professional licenses. We all have a hand in our governance through elections to our Board of Commissioners and Representative Assembly; every attorney in good standing in Michigan is entitled to vote and to serve. The work being done by the elected leaders of the State Bar of Michigan is hyper-focused on our Strategic Plan — which keeps the bar focused on its essential responsibilities and specifically mandates efficiency and cost savings — and it is being done because we as attorneys collectively determined we needed this work to be done.

Our work is important, and our operations are lean. The State Bar of Michigan needs to be fully funded and should be fully funded. I hope you agree.

The views expressed in From the President, as well as other expressions of opinions published in the Bar Journal from time to time, do not necessarily state or reflect the official position of the State Bar of Michigan, nor does their publication constitute an endorsement of the views expressed. They are the opinions of the authors and are intended not to end discussion, but to stimulate thought about significant issues affecting the legal profession, the making of laws, and the adjudication of disputes.