Unified Bar Q&A

What is a unified bar?

The terms unified and integrated when applied to a bar organization are essentially synonymous. Unified bars perform regulatory functions as well as a range of other public services and programs designed to enhance the competence and professionalism of bar members. Membership is required for lawyers practicing in a unified bar’s jurisdiction. 

The unified bar concept first came to fruition in North Dakota in 1921. It derived from a recognition that the public obligation of the legal profession goes well beyond adherence to ethical/disciplinary rules. Lawyers, in effect, are the keepers of the justice system. While a healthy system of laws and courts is the foundation of any functional democracy, it fails its primary test if the citizens do not understand and trust, or cannot fully access, its protections. Now nearly 100 years since its establishment, the unified bar model exists in more than 30 U.S. jurisdictions, although how those bars operate varies considerably.

What type of bar is the OSB?

Oregon adopted the unified bar model through legislation in 1935. The State Bar Act (ORS Chapter 9) establishes the bar as an instrumentality of the judicial branch with regulatory authority over the practice of law and a directive to work for “the advancement of the science of jurisprudence and the improvement of the administration of justice.” ORS 9.010 and ORS 9.080. Today the bar’s mission is to serve justice by promoting respect for the rule of law, by improving the quality of legal services and by increasing access to justice.

Over the years, the Oregon State Bar has maintained its strong, public-focused mission. The bar’s regulatory functions, including discipline and admission, are performed under the direction of the judicial branch, assuring that the courts can maintain fair and impartial review authority as the final arbiter in regulatory matters and that lawyers—not taxpayers—pay for the costs of lawyer regulation.

The bar’s public protection mission also drives the delivery of programs and services that promote a competent and ethical bar, such as BarBooks and Fastcase.  In addition, the bar promotes respect for the rule of law through programs that help the public understand, trust and access the justice system, such as the Referral and Information Services program, the Diversity and Inclusion program and the Legal Services program. Finally, the bar supports the administration of justice and a fair, impartial judiciary. Those efforts include advocacy for adequate funding for the courts and for legal services for low-income individuals.

Would bar fees be lower if Oregon did not have a unified bar?

While fees can be higher in unified states, this comes with a significant caveat. Our early research indicates that in states without a unified bar, a majority of lawyers join the voluntary statewide organization to access the benefits and value of a statewide entity, while also paying the mandatory fee for the regulatory mechanism. In these cases, combined annual fees to both organizations will likely be higher. This is due to economies of scale and shared operational costs in a unified model. 

The OSB’s BarBooks program offers a good example of those financial principles. Eight years ago the OSB Board of Governors decided to absorb the cost of BarBooks into general license fees so those who might need it most — new lawyers, sole practitioners and rural lawyers — would have full access. The rationale was to promote effective legal services and enhance the competency of all Oregon lawyers, which is core to the bar’s public protection mission. Because all Oregon lawyers now support BarBooks, the annual per-member cost is $69. When it was previously offered on a subscription basis, prices ranged from $395 annually for individuals to $5,000 for large firms.

In short, because a voluntary bar association will have fewer members than OSB currently has, the per-member cost for any services it provides will increase. The impact would likely be higher for smaller practices, and lower for large firms.

Where can I learn more about the current challenges to unified bars?

Relevant articles:

Specific challenges:

  • Fleck v. Wetch, United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Case No. 16-1564.
  • Gruber et al. v. Oregon State Bar et al., United States District Court for the District of Oregon, Case No. 3:18-cv-01591-JR; U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Case No. 19-35470.
  • Crowe et al. v. Oregon State Bar et al., United States District Court for the District of Oregon, Case No. 3:18-cv-02139-JR; U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Case No. 19-35463.
  • Eugster v. Washington State Bar Association, Justices of the Washington Supreme Court, et al., United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Case No 18-35421.
  • In re Arizona State Bar, Petition to Amend Rules 32(c) and (d), Rules of the Supreme Court, Arizona Supreme Court Case No. R-19-0005.
  • McDonald et al. v. Longley et al., United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, Case No. 1:19-cv-00219.
  • Schell v. Williams, United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, Case No. 5:19-cv-00281.
  • Jarchow et al. v. State Bar of Wisconsin et. al, United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, Case No. 3:19-cv-00266.