The fallout from last year's D.C. Bar membership referendum that prohibited the use of mandatory dues for social service projects has just about settled, leaving two things fairly clear: First, area lawyers are not the pikers some would think they are. Second, the bar will be able to maintain most of its social service programs, although at a reduced level.
Nearly 40 percent of the bar's 36,000 members responded to pleas for contributions to take up the shortfall when, as a result of the majority-approved referendum, dues dropped from $65 a year to $45. The requested contribution was $20. Some gave more, some less, but the average seemed to be right around $20, according to those who have glanced at the figures.
More than $250,000 has been collected, to the surprise of both backers and foes of the controversial amendment. Bar President James J. Bierbower, who favored the amendment, said the heavy contributions showed that lawyers will support the general principle of legal aid.
Others, such as John Douglas, a former association president who now heads the Bar Foundation, called the results "quite encouraging." But he pointed out that the foundation, which funds many community service projects, will be receiving less this year -- at a time when federally funded legal aid programs are being cut.
Also, there will be scaled-down recruitment for the lawyer referral service, and some bar projects, such as one that helps settle landlord-tenant disputes, will disappear.
But the continuing legal education program appears to be on solid footing with increased course enrollment. That program got a boost last week when the D.C. Court of Appeals allowed the bar to institute, at least for this year, a $150,000 revolving fund. The various bar divisions, which work on issues affecting lawyers, the public and the bar and, as a result of the referendum, now charge dues, have collected twice as much as bar officials anticipated in a "worst-case" budget.
Still, some bar officials, such as board member Alan Morrison, who opposed the referendum, believe this year's collections may not be sustained in future years. "The proof in the pudding will be next year," after the publicity generated by the referendum fight dies down, Morrison said. Even with a voluntary $20 contribution, lawyers were asked to pay in all exactly what they paid last year. If mandatory dues rise, Morrison cautioned, then voluntary contributions might also drop.