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The Rent We Pay for Living

Membership in the Association is a service to the profession and to our community.

By Patricia M. Schnegg
Patricia M. Schnegg is president of the Association.

This President's Page was originally published in the November 1999 issue of
Los Angeles Lawyer.

The legal world in which we practice our profession has changed dramatically since many of us launched our careers. There is increased competition. Clients have higher expectations. The legal system is more complex than ever, and the practice of law has been irrevocably molded by the widespread acceptance of new technologies. We now operate in a real-time world, which, when coupled with increased competition, has transformed the practice of law into a business. And now, with accounting and consulting firms reinventing themselves as multidisciplinary providers of bundled services, including legal services, the pressure has grown more intense. 

So what does all this mean to the Los Angeles County Bar Association? The most obvious ramification of this change is that lawyers no longer feel that they have as much time to devote to bar association activities. Starkly put, bar activities are not quantified on a firm's financial statement, which, in this climate, means that they are no longer as valued by many law firms. 

This is an unfortunate change in law firm culture, and it has had a direct and negative impact on the Association. Our membership totals are flat. Younger attorneys are not joining the Association as readily as they used to, and membership from large firms is down. This is critically important because historically large firm membership has been the backbone of the Association. We suspect that this trend started with the economic downturn of the early 1990s, when many firms revised their policies on the payment of bar association dues. Today, those policies are as varied as the practice of law itself. Some large firms do not pay Association dues for any attorneys; some pay dues for associates, but not partners; and some pay dues only if the member-attorney asks the firm to do so. Finally, there are some firms that will pay dues only if an attorney is actively involved in the Association. 

I believe that all law firms, and especially large firms, have an obligation to the legal community to help ensure the continued viability of the local bar. We need an active, viable, dynamic, and effective local bar association that can speak with credibility on the needs of lawyers, the legal community, and the public. We need a voice that will be heard, and to that extent, there is no doubt there is strength in numbers. 

There is also no doubt that this Association provides services to lawyers and to the community as a whole, services that we cannot afford to continue to provide if we do not have a dynamic number of dues-paying members. For example, our committees, sections, and staff are working diligently to provide such services as judicial evaluations both for elections and appointments, judicial profiles, an appellate brief bank, online comments on recent court rulings, and other practice aids. The Association also provides training for new lawyers, hundreds of CLE programs each year, studies on such issues as the rise of multidisciplinary practices and the unification of the superior and municipal courts, as well as scores of other services. 

On another level, the Association's pro bono activities provide outstanding service to the community. I encourage you to stop by the Domestic Violence Project, on the second floor of the courthouse on Hill Street, while it is in session. You can't miss it because there will be a long line outside the courtroom, where spouses seeking protection from an abusive husband or wife stand alongside elderly men and women seeking protection from an abusive child. (Elder abuse now accounts for almost one-third of the project's caseload.) Similarly, the Immigration Legal Assistance Project, housed in the Federal Building, provides needed pro bono legal services to recent immigrants seeking to reside in the United States. The Association also supports the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, Public Counsel, AIDS/HALSA, and the Barristers Homeless Project. 

Your membership in the Association not only supports these programs but provides the clout that we as a profession need in these antilawyer times. I am not even asking firms to encourage their attorneys to get involved in bar activities. I realize that time is precious and the billable hour is critical. However, you can meet your obligation to support your local bar association in another way: by doing what you can to ensure that your firm supports the bar through the individual memberships of your lawyers. If your firm does not pay Association dues, try to change its policy. This will send a message to all your attorneys, especially young attorneys, that this Association is valued, that membership counts. If you can't change your firm's dues payment policy, do what you can to encourage your colleagues to join the Bar. 

When I think of the Association, I am often reminded of something that Marian Wright Edelman said: "Service is the rent each of us pay for living-the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time or after you have reached your personal goals." I am asking you to consider the payment of dues to this Association as part of your rent, something you can do to help pay for the privilege we enjoy of being lawyers. If you include the amount of the dues attributable to membership for you and your attorneys on the line item next to "rent" on your financials, it probably would go unnoticed. I am proud to say that my firm has achieved 100 percent membership in this Association, and I would like to challenge your firm to do the same. Please take an active role in this important effort.

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