Governance & Membership

December 2019 President's Message

The State of the OBA

By Charles W. Chesnut

One of the many responsibilities the president of the bar association is tasked with is writing a president’s message for the bar journal each month. By and large, it is probably the most dreaded job the president has – that and the appointment of the chair and vice chair of the bar’s 22 standing committees.

This is my final president’s message, and interestingly, I’ve really enjoyed writing them. As with anything, some have been more fun to write than others. Some messages have been somewhat obligatory in their content. I haven’t enjoyed those as much; however, I just try to find ways to make them more fun to read. It’s definitely been a challenge.

My year as president of the OBA is almost over. As I’ve said many times before, there’s an old saying in bar association circles that as bar president, the year you plan and the year you get are two different things. You want a quiet year that is productive.

What I’ve actually experienced is a year in which I, along with every member of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Board of Governors and our executive director, have been sued by one of our members. Quoting from the joint status report filed with the court in the case, “The plaintiff is licensed to practice law in the State of Oklahoma. He challenged the State of Oklahoma’s requirement that he join and pay dues to the Oklahoma Bar Association as a condition of practicing law in the state. In his Third Claim for Relief, he alleged that – to the extent that mandatory bar membership and dues are constitutional – the State has not provided sufficient safeguards to ensure that attorneys’ mandatory dues are not used for political and ideological speech and other activities that are not germane to the bar’s regulatory purpose, as required by constitutional law.”

As defendants, we moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s amended complaint. The court partially granted the motions, dismissing plaintiff’s first and second claims for relief upon concluding that U.S. Supreme Court precedent approves mandatory bar membership and dues.

Regarding the plaintiff’s surviving third claim for relief, as defendants, the OBA contends that the OBA’s procedures for handling member objections to the OBA’s expenditures of dues comply with the First Amendment. We also contend that the OBA’s procedures are constitutionally sufficient.

The case is now beginning its discovery phase.

Our premier event of the summer, the Solo & Small Firm Conference, was flooded out of its original destination in Tulsa in June and had to move to another location. It turned out swimmingly, if you will, thanks to the efforts of our bar staff. They did an amazing job of moving to another location on an extremely short timetable, and the event came off without a hitch.

We are so fortunate to have the bar staff that we have. This bar association has 15,794 active members being served by a bar staff of 42 people. They do an amazing job of trying to make our lives as practicing attorneys easier and more productive. My hat is off to them for their efforts on our behalf.

I think it’s interesting how certain words and phrases come into vogue. These days when we want to study something as an organization, we appoint “task forces.”

This year, I appointed a task force to study continuing legal education. Chaired by Jack Brown of Tulsa and co-chaired by our President-Elect Susan Shields, it was comprised of a blue-ribbon group of Oklahoma lawyers. In addition, many OBA staff members also served on the task force. It met monthly from January to June and studied all aspects of CLE. The real issue was whether the OBA needs to be in the CLE business, and if so, how should it best be structured to produce maximum value to our members.

The committee ultimately recommended that we target CLE programs for new lawyers, promote greater coordination with sections and committees on CLE programs and increase the number of mandatory legal ethics credits.

There was lengthy discussion on increasing the overall number of required CLE credits that continued over several meetings. The task force ultimately decided to leave the total number of required credits at 12 per year. However, it did decide to recommend the adoption of a new definition of legal ethics and to increase from one to two the required legal ethics credits per year.

There was a resolution before the House of Delegates this year that provides effective Jan. 1, 2021, of the 12 required instructional hours of CLE each year, at least two hours must be for programming on legal ethics and professionalism, which includes legal malpractice prevention. Of the two required hours of continuing education on legal ethics and professionalism, they may be for programming on either legal ethics and professionalism, legal malpractice prevention and/or mental health and substance use disorders.

Our financial situation as a bar association is strong. Although projected to have a deficit budget, our method of underestimating income and over estimating expenses has kept us on a solid financial footing. We have ample money in reserve to deal with emergencies. Craig Combs, our director of administration, and John Morris Williams, our executive director, do a great job in managing our financial resources.

As an association, we have not had a dues increase since 2005. Dues are $275 per year for members who have been practicing three or more years and $137.50 for members who have been practicing less than three years. The cost of living has increased 35% since that time. I’m forewarning you that it’s hard to maintain dues at the current level when expenses increase on a continuing basis. We will need to have a dues increase in the near future just to keep step.

Looking forward, I think the outlook for the Oklahoma Bar Association is bright. We are blessed with strong leadership by solid people with vision who make good common-sense decisions on our behalf on a day-to-day basis. That’s what we want and that’s what we need.

I am thrilled at the prospect of Susan Shields and Mike Mordy leading us for the next two years. We have a great group serving as our Board of Governors, and I am grateful to them for their support and advice this year.

Finally, I just want to say thank you for the opportunity to be president of this association in 2019. It has been exciting and challenging but a richly rewarding time in my life.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 89 pg. 4 (December 2019)