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A Matter of Economics

The ABA House of Delegates will consider a proposed membership dues increase when it convenes in February during the association’s midyear meeting in Chicago.

If the House approves the increase, it will become effective for the fiscal year that begins Sept. 1.

The proposed increase has wide support among the association leadership. The 37-member Board of Governors voted unanimously to recommend that the House of Delegates, which sets ABA policy, approve the increase.

But that doesn’t mean the decision was easy.

“A dues increase is never something we approach casually or ill-advisedly,” says ABA Treasurer Wm. T. Robinson III of Covington, Ky. “By their nature, dues increases are never popular.” But the need for additional dues income, Robinson says, is “a simple matter of economics.”

Financial projections indicate that the ABA will incur a cumulative budget shortfall of $23 million over the next three-year budget cycle that ends in August 2009, Robinson says. Making up that shortfall would require either deep cuts in ABA programs and services or a dues increase.

Coming off the current three-year cycle, which saw extensive cost cuts, reducing the budget further “would cut into program support that is so essential to our association and its credibility with the public,” Robinson says.

Others in the ABA leadership agree with that assessment. “I don’t think there’s anyone who wanted a dues increase,” says Board of Governors member James Baird of Chicago. “But there was also no one who wanted to take out the knife and start slashing programs.”

Baird chairs the Dues Pricing Strategy Advisory Group, appointed by ABA President Michael S. Greco of Boston to study the association’s dues structure and explore possible alternative dues mechanisms.

New Directions

The new dues proposal is an effort to nudge the ABA away from its traditional dues structure, which groups regular ABA members into categories based on years admitted to practice. Under that approach, dues now are as follows: $110 a year for members admitted to practice from one to five years, $225 a year for members admitted six to nine years, and $350 for members admitted 10 or more years. (Lawyers are eligible for free membership their first year after bar admission.)

But the proposed schedule would introduce a type of sliding dues scale. Across the board, the proposal would increase dues about 17 percent, but the actual amount of increase at each level would vary. Members admitted to practice for a year would pay annual dues of $125. From there, dues would increase incrementally based on years since bar admission until a member has been admitted for 10 years, at which point dues would top out at $399.

Dues under the Faculty Group Membership Program, which are based on student enrollments at participating law schools, would increase about 18 percent. Dues for associate (nonlawyer) members would increase $25 to $175 a year. Dues for lawyers admitted one to five years would include a $40 coupon that can be applied toward section membership. That credit is currently $35.

In addition to the sliding dues scale, authorization to explore creative billing arrangements is key, says Maury B. Poscover of St. Louis, who chairs the Standing Committee on Membership. That will help identify dues structures that are more responsive to members, he says.

Ultimately, he says, “the real issue is what members feel is value and whether we deliver that value at a fair price.” And since “value” means different things to different people, a more flexible dues structure might respond to more members’ priorities.

Baird appreciates both the opportunity and the urgency to study alternatives. “Everyone,” he says, “is sensitive to the need to do things better and smarter.”

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