THE DEBATE has resumed over the proper role of the D.C. Bar. On one side are lawyers who say the bar should simply serve its stated function of registering and disciplining lawyers who practice in the District. On the other side are lawyers who say that the bar is required by the ideals of the profession to involve itself in city life, and that part of the bar's dues should provide social services, such as lawyers referral and studies of the court system.
In December, the bar's membership voted to confine the use of its dues to discipline and registration only. But now the D.C. Court of Appeals, which oversees the bar, is set to make a final decision on the question.
At issue here is the role of lawyers in society, not just the role of the bar. Part of the argument in favor of using dues for social services is that good lawyers as individuals should contribute to the betterment of the city, in the tradition of some socially concerned lawyers who offer their services pro bono to the poor. This tradition is a fine one. Some bar associations with voluntary membership have even decided to expand on those individual acts by making service to the community a formal part of their mission.
But the fight over using the D.C. bar's dues for public service is essentially a battle to institutionalize the idea of community service and make it a requirement for all lawyers working in Washington. The D.C. bar is not a voluntary organization; a lawyer must be a member to practice law here. To compel any person to do the bar's bidding on a matter of social policy, not professional ethics, is wrong in principle.
It is important to note that the vote on dues in no way represented a limit on what activities some members may want to support voluntarily. Some lawyers and law firms will want to help the bar maintain some, if not all, of the current activities. It is also likely that, as individual lawyers and law firms direct their money to particular activities, the bar will become a better reflection of the will of its members. But even if the bar's members choose to do nothing, the Appeals Court should not require a lawyer to do anything other than not cheat his clients and abide by the law in order to qualify to practice in the city's courts.