Get ready for dues, eJournal changes at State Bar

While only a fraction of State Bar of Michigan members are going to be at the SBM annual meeting in Grand Rapids today and tomorrow, Executive Director Janet Welch noted that something’s happening today that affects all members: dues invoices are going out.

State Bar of Michigan Executive Director Janet Welch addresses attendees at the kickoff of the ICLE 2012 Solo and Small Firm Institute, held in conjunction with the SBM meeting in Grand Rapids.

And, for the first time since 2004, there will be a change in the dues amount.

“Your dues are going down,” she said at her annual welcome and report at the kickoff of the ICLE 2012 Solo and Small Firm Institute, held in conjunction with the SBM meeting at DeVos Place.

This is thanks to a recent Michigan Supreme Court order that called for the decrease of the disciplinary portion of annual dues effective this bar year by $10, something the Representative Assembly has historically lobbied for (only the high court can set dues amounts). This time around, the Supreme Court acted on this on its own.

“We are below the national average in our dues, and I think we can make a good case that we are giving you more for your money than other states’ bar associations,” said Welch, who pointed to two examples for the coming year.

One of the most popular member benefits is the daily eJournal case summary email, which Welch said has summarized almost 50,000 cases since it was launched in 1999 as the first electronic daily case summary service in the country. This year, the eJournal added CaseMaker, which allows SBM members free access to its legal research software, and new features have been added to it based on what members asked for – such as faster search results with a more intuitive interface, personalized search history and customizable folders.

Then there’s the Practice Management Resource Center, the SBM’s online resource for solo and small firm management, which has refreshed a lot of its content thanks to the encouragement of outgoing State Bar President Julie Fershtman, who formed a task force last year seeking for ways to improve it. Resources in financial management, calendaring, client relations, marketing, best practices and disaster policies, record retention and IOLTA have been updated, and a new library of law-related e-books via the Overdrive software is about to launch.

In addition, Welch said that a new mentoring database, the JobTarget Mentor Board, is being developed to bring seasoned Michigan attorneys together with new ones.

That’s something that’s going under the watch of incoming SBM President Bruce Courtade, who will be sworn in later today. Check with the Michigan Lawyer blog later today for more on that.

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State Bar’s force report goes before House Judiciary Committee

Members of the state House Judiciary Committee appeared to be business-oriented Thursday when Janet Welch, executive director of the State Bar of Michigan, made a presentation on the Bar’s recently released Judicial Crossroads Task Force Report.

The report offers suggestions on what can be done to fix the state’s justice system during a massive state budget crisis, such as the state being responsible for funding an indigent defense system; making e-filing statewide; and a shared jurisdiction system that would reduce the number of judges.

Though the Legislature can only push for such legislation as court consolidation and indigent defense, the idea of a business docket perked the most interest.

Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, and Rep. Phil Cavanagh, D-Redford Twp., said they were intrigued by the three-year pilot program, which would be based in Oakland and Wayne counties, the state’s most active court systems. It would involve two or three judges solely dedicated to business-to-business disputes.

When asked whether it would involve additional costs, Welch said once it’s up and running, it would be a means of saving costs. She added that the business impact committee, which drafted the pilot idea, found that such a model would not take any resources away from each county’s existing court system.

But actual cost numbers were what some committee members most hoped to review.

While Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, called the report a “great first step,” he added that he shared the same views as Rep. Bob Constan, D-Dearborn Heights, in that the two would have liked to see more specific recommendations with respect to court consolidations, pay cuts for judges and staffs, especially in southeast Michigan.

Essentially, “how we can see the kind of sacrifices of the judicial branch that, frankly, the rest of us are having to make, and, as we’ll learn by the end of the day [following Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal presentation], that we’re going to have to make even more of.”

Welch said that there will be more specific numbers as concurrent jurisdiction plans go forward.

After the meeting, Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, mentioned that there are bills ready to be introduced for indigent defense funding, and that stronger efforts would be made following last year’s legislative collapse. In addition, Committee Chair Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, said that there would be a committee made up specifically for it.

Because of time restraints, Welch was invited to return to the next committee meeting for further questions on the report.

The report, which was written for members of the Legislature, the governor and the Michigan Supreme Court to review with the intent that they will consider making changes, can be found at http://www.michbar.org/judicialcrossroads.

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SBM director waxes on effects of ‘beyond bad’ state of state at annual meeting

In her report to attendees of the 2010 Solo & Small Firm Institute — as part of the 2010 State Bar of Michigan annual meeting in Grand Rapids — Janet Welch, executive director of the State Bar of Michigan, was upfront about having bad news and good news.

First, the bad, which is the “beyond bad” state of the state, something that affects the court system and, in turn, lawyers.

The state’s per average capital income is the best way to measure how things stand in Michigan, she said, but there are grim numbers involved. In 1970, Michigan was 13th in the nation, but in 2000 it dropped to 19th, and in 2008, sank to 38th.

And citing the House Fiscal Agency’s ranking of Michigan in income growth, “We’re not only dead last, but we’re so far beyond 49th, we can’t even see 49th.”

For that, she turned to the SBM’s Judicial Crossroads Taskforce, a 13-month-old initiative to study and recommend ways for the court system to be saved and advanced in the wake of declining state revenues.

Though the task force’s final meeting isn’t for another few weeks, and the report’s results aren’t public yet, Welch weighed in on what could be recommended.

“In broadest terms, I think their report will call for a court system that’s simpler, more flexible, and more based on evidence-based results,” she said. “It will recognize that in some areas of the states we have more judges than needed, and in other areas, we don’t have enough. And it will say that we will need to measure that by an objective, evidence-based measure.”

One question the task force has asked is whether there’s something the court system can do to handle business disputes that can be perceived as friendly to the business community to help them feel better about staying in Michigan and, in effect, encourage other businesses to come here.

For that, she said, one committee in the task force is recommended a three-year private business docket in three of the biggest Michigan counties, where two or three judges would handle all business cases. She noted that other states that have tried such a program have had great results.

Finally, she said that the task force believes cost savings can only happen with better information systems in court, particularly via statewide e-filing in all state courts.

“The tools exist right now to make the court system more convenient, more accessible, more efficient … . We’re wasting money by not spending money to make that happen,” she said.

So, wasn’t there something mentioned about good news?

Well, Welch did say that the state of the SBM is “good — truly good.”

Given the reserves that SBM has built up by managing the way it delivers services to its members, and based on the current rate of consumption, she said that the SBM won’t have to raise dues for another eight more years.

That’s relief for a state where more and more lawyers are struggling professionally, but where dues are in the bottom percentage compared to other states. Welch pointed to that the fact there is no mandatory continuing legal education requirements as another advantage of practicing in Michigan.

She said the secret is being tech savvy, thus saving administrative costs where they count, and SBM members’ volunteer time helping offset things. An example of the latter, she added, is the launch of the Master Lawyer Section, which will replace the Senior Lawyers Section, and will allow the more experienced members of the bar to participate in pro bono programs and mentoring for younger attorneys.

Also, something she said that’s of “critical” importance is the upcoming triennial economics of law practice survey, which will be sent to bar members in October via e-mail and the SBM website.

Welch pointed to the Michigan Supreme Court’s 2008 Smith v. Khouri attorney fee ruling, for which the Court said the SBM’s previous survey was the most important resource in determining award of attorney fees.

But the Court also cited limitations within the survey, so Welch said the SBM has streamlined the new survey, which will be tailored in two different forms — one for private practice members, the other for all other members. The results will be published in early 2011, and there will be drawings and giveaways to help bolster participation.

Check back on our blog for more from the 2010 State Bar meeting.

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