Oklahoma Bar Journal

Proposed Dues Increase: Stay Up or Play Catch-Up

By John Morris Williams

I began my tenure at the OBA on May 1, 2003. As excited as I was to assume the position, I soon learned there were some serious challenges at hand. The most pressing issues were directly related to the financial position of the association. The financial reserves were so thin that CLE collections had to be closely monitored to ensure we could meet payroll.

There were absolutely no resources to fix the leaking roof, remove 15,000 square feet of asbestos or make major technological updates. In sum, the place was broken, dirty, had years of deferred maintenance, and even the bathrooms smelled bad.

This graph demonstrates the percentage increase of consumer prices over a period of one year in several categories of goods. This graph has been modified to display precise percentage increases. Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://bit.ly/3QfAoiM.

In 2004, the OBA increased dues from $175 to $275 and still had the cheapest bar dues in the country for all the functions the OBA performs. A few states may look cheaper, but when you see their add-ons, the cost of licensing has always been a bargain in Oklahoma.

In today's dollars, the current dues have lost most of their value. Yet, the OBA operated for 20 years on what was predicted at the time of the last dues increase to only last six years. The OBA has always been conservative with dues dollars and provided great value. Much of this has to do with the innovation and creativity of the staff. Speaking of staff, the OBA actually has fewer employees than when I first came to the OBA, although the membership has increased by more than 3,000.

This graph demonstrates how the buying power of $275 has declined over the past 20 years. Available from https://bit.ly/3UiiwVq.

After the last dues increase, we spent 10 years playing catch-up. The deferred maintenance costs were huge, the updates to technology were costly, and we needed to upgrade our salary schedule to ensure we could keep the talented staff who had stayed with us during the lean years.

The OBA is now at a crossroads. The choice is either to stay with meeting the current needs or to let things decline and later play catch-up. I have worked for three different organizations, and my experience has been that playing catch-up costs significantly more in the end. For example, currently, the 20-year-old roof needs replacing. Defer that, and next, you will be paying repair costs for water damage, some of which has already occurred. The current association management software that allows members to perform multiple tasks online has aged and will not support new functionalities that would enhance member online services. In the end, the OBA will spend more, and members’ dollars will lose value if a dues increase does not occur now. You can pay now or later. Later costs more.

This graph shows the annual rate of inflation since 2004. In 2004, the rate of inflation was 2.66%, compared to 3.48% in 2024. Available from https://bit.ly/3UiiwVq.

I think I earned the reputation of being tight with a dollar. First, I always considered that the money belonged to the members, and I had a fiduciary duty to spend it wisely. Second, I paid dues just like everyone else. Third, the finances are ultimately controlled by the Supreme Court, and every single penny of expenses has to be justified.

It’s time to stay up. In today’s dollars, it would take $451 to be equivalent to the $275 dues in 2004. When taking inflation into consideration, OBA members have actually had a dues decrease every year for the last 20 years. It’s now time to catch up and stay up or eventually play catch-up at a significantly greater cost.

It is my association, too. My experience tells me we need to catch up with inflation and increase the dues to $400. We will still be paying less in real dollars than the last dues increase in 2004. It’s a bargain too good to pass up.


John Morris Williams served as OBA executive director from 2003 to 2022.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar JournalOBJ 95 No. 5 (May 2024)

Statements or opinions expressed in the Oklahoma Bar Journal are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Oklahoma Bar Association, its officers, Board of Governors, Board of Editors or staff.