I wish I knew an enterprising class-action lawyer who’s looking for work. If I did, I’d suggest he or she file a lawsuit against the California State Bar over billing practices that I believe are of very dubious legality. They’ve been doing it for as long as I’ve been practicing law, and they get away with it because they’re the State Bar and everyone’s either in on the trick, or afraid to sue them. First, take a look at my annual bill—which is approximately identical to the bills that every lawyer in the state gets every year. Click on the image to get a bigger version:
You’ll notice that line 1 is my membership fee—my dues—and then there’s a rebate on line 2, and so forth. Then on line 12, there’s a $100 dollar “recommended donation” to their “access to justice” fund. This is just “Recommended,” but they’ve helpfully added it to your $400 dues, and written in $500 in line 13 in case you can’t do the math yourself. Below that, they’ve added another $50 “recommended donation” on line 16, a $35 “recommendation” on line 17, and a $25 “recommendation” on line 18. A hasty reader might skip down and think that these are mandatory amounts and write out a check to the Bar for the full $615 amount—well over the actual, legally-required amount.
But wait! It gets worse!
Check out lines 24 and 25. On line 24, you’re told that if you do not want to fund certain Bar programs (which you have a constitutional right not to fund, thanks to the 1990 Supreme Court case of Keller v. State Bar, won by my friend Tom Caso), you may deduct $5 from your total—and in line 25, if you don’t want to fund other programs, you can deduct $20.
You see, the actual membership fee for the state bar is not, as lines 1 and 2 imply, $400. No. The actual bar dues are $375. They’ve just assumed in line 1 that you will pay these fees rather than deduct them. And given that lines 12 through 18 are clearly labeled as “Voluntary,” a hasty reader would be led to overlook the fact that lines 24 and 25 are also supposedly voluntary—because here you are not asked to add, but to subtract!
You could not possibly write a more misleading bill. This bill is fools the reader into overlooking (at least) lines 24 and 25. These two dollar amounts are included at the outset, and you’re required to subtract them, whereas the other voluntary fees are clearly labeled as voluntary and you are asked to add them. It is hard to imagine how many attorneys hastily write out a check either for $615 or for $400, not realizing—because this bill misleads them—that they are paying more than they are legally required to pay.
California Business and Professions Code section 17200, et seq., makes it illegal to engage in unfair or fraudulent business practices, or unfair, deceptive or misleading advertising, with a $2,500 violation for each violation. Attorneys fees are also available. I have no intention of suing the State Bar, because I’m too busy and don’t have the expertise. But I sure wish some enterprising class action lawyer would sue the living hell out of these swindlers.