Oregon State Bar Bulletin APRIL 2014
The Four F’s:
The Nuts and Bolts of Bar Governance
By Tom Kranovich
For the last three years as a member of the Board of Governors and this year as president, my attention and efforts have been focused on what I now call the “Four F’s” of bar governance: finance, function, future and fees. While these four topics can be individually addressed, they are inextricably intertwined and they must be continuously monitored and kept in balance with each other.
As was reported at the November 2013 House of Delegates meeting, the Oregon State Bar is on firm financial footing. Through prudent investment strategies the bar’s reserves are at a sound and appropriate level. The change in the Lawyer Referral Service business model is generating revenue greater than was anticipated, and for the first time since the program’s inception, it is steadily moving toward running in the black.
Over the last 10 years, we have increased services to our members and the public, including providing Bar Books, Fastcase and an expansion of Oregon New Lawyers Division programming, among others. We have maintained our commitment to legal services, been a key contributor in obtaining increased funding for the courts and weathered the “Great Recession” without having to reduce services. Over that same 10 years, our computer systems, especially our operational software, have gotten so out of date that our ability to meet the needs of the members necessitates upgrades that will start this year.
We have done all these things without a fee increase. That we have done so is a testament to two things: 1) the Board of Governors’ commitment to sound stewardship of bar funds; and 2) the diligence by bar staff in reducing costs through the elimination of waste and redundancies and by their utilization of technology to more effectively and efficiently provide services to the public and the membership.
At its most basic level the bar has two essential functions: 1) Protecting the public through regulating the practice of law and the conduct of lawyers (including offering programs to promote lawyer competency); and 2) Advancing the science of jurisprudence (promoting the rule of law, improving the administration of justice, increasing court access and championing the independence of the courts). The bar’s programs are key components in promoting and accomplishing the bar’s mission. How and how well our programs are meeting the needs of the public and our membership will be a topic for a future article but for now, please know that the board and bar staff are well aware of our responsibilities in carrying out the mandates of the Bar Act (ORS 9).
This is the most exciting and dynamic area of bar governance. Keeping the functions of the bar in step with the needs of lawyers and the public — in the face of significant changes in the profession — and how we fund those functions is dependent upon on our ability to plan for the future. It is not unusual for me to hear that the legal system is in a “crisis.” Firms are no longer hiring at historical rates, more attorneys (new and experienced) are going into solo practice, there are fewer taking the LSATs, fewer applying for law school and fewer taking bar exams. Law schools have reduced their admissions and the public is increasingly relying on Internet-provided legal services. Consequently, I all too often hear pundits and practitioners swirl these factors into a tempest and predict that the sky is falling. This approach, while stimulating, is not helpful.
The sky is not falling, but the winds of change are blowing. These winds, however, are not going unheeded. In my travels as president I meet lawyers and judges from all over the country, and everyone in every jurisdiction is actively looking for answers. Few, if any, are of the opinion that we simply need to weather the storm so that things will return to the relatively calm state to which we had become accustomed. The dialogue has begun, and important conversations are being held between law schools and judges; between the court and the board, between law schools and the board, among the court, the board and large firms, between the board and the providers of legal services and products. We will expand this dialogue to include input from our sections, county bars and specialty bars.
How things are going to shake out is anyone’s guess, but much of what we are facing is market-driven with variables too numerous to mention here. What I can tell you is that we have turned into the wind to calmly and resolutely meet the swells. There is no reason to think that the profession will founder, but there is every reason to know it will change. Accordingly, the board must be steadfast, but flexible, as it charts our future course.
As stated, above, we have gone 10 years without a general fee increase, but it is unrealistic to think that we can continue to meet our obligations to the public and the profession without an increase at some point in the future. I can assure you that before proposing any fee increase, the board and bar staff will have reviewed every program for its ongoing relevance, cost effectiveness and contribution towards the mission of the bar. I will be addressing the fee function in more detail in a later article.
We are living in trying times, but when has it ever been not so? We will always have challenges, but I am confident that we are a membership capable of finding solutions. I am equally confident that a key component to finding effective solutions will be a viable, engaged, informed and robust bar membership for whom we provide high levels of cost-effective and relevant services.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
OSB President Tom Kranovich practices law in Lake Oswego.