Governance & Membership

President's Message - May 2024

20 Years Later: Time for an OBA Dues Increase

By Miles Pringle

2024 OBA President Miles Pringle

In my January article, I laid out three main goals for the year. One of them was to evaluate the financial future of the Oklahoma Bar Association and the appropriateness of a dues increase. The House of Delegates last voted to raise dues 20 years ago, in 2004, to the current $275 amount, which would equate to approximately $445 in 2023 and likely more today as inflation persists.

In 2004, the OBA dues increased by $100, from $175 to $275. That 57% increase was the first increase in 15 years. Then-OBA President Harry Woods commented, “It is remarkable that the association has gone as long as it has without a dues increase.” At the time, the 57% increase was viewed as necessary to “maintain or modestly improve the level of programs and services.”

I think the 2004 House of Delegates would be pleased with the results of their investment in the OBA. With that investment, which has lasted 20 years, the OBA has been able to advance its technology and programs that improve the administration of justice in this state, and the quality of services provided to attorneys has been greatly improved.

Based on the information provided by the professionals on the OBA staff, the Board of Governors is making a recommendation to the House of Delegates that the OBA dues be raised by $125 (from $275 to $400). This 45% increase is a lesser percentage increase from 2004 and below the value of $275 in 2004. The OBA has been able to do more with less over the past several years, but the time has come when there are no practical efficiencies to be gained, and we jeopardize the mission of the OBA by not raising dues.

The Board of Governors was presented with four different dues increase scenarios: 1) $25, 2) $75, 3) $125 and 4) $175. To be blunt, the first two scenarios were not reasonable options. Cash flow projections for a $75 increase showed the OBA losing money (i.e., drawing on its strategic reserve) every year. In the best projected year, 2025, the OBA was predicted to lose $218,534. There is no point in raising dues that do not put the OBA in a financially stable position.

The board had a very robust discussion regarding a $125 increase as opposed to a $175 increase. A $125 increase puts the OBA in what I would categorize as a financially stable position through at least 2029 (barring unforeseen circumstances). The $175 increase would put the OBA in a positive position through 2031 and potentially allow for investments in big-ticket items.

The first motion for the board to vote on was for a $175 increase, which failed by one vote. While I personally supported a $125 increase, there were many strong arguments that a $175 increase was the better and more prudent option. I voted for a $125 increase because it stabilizes the OBA’s financial position with the least amount of cost to lawyers in the medium term. Also, if there are big-ticket items in the next three to five years, we can discuss how to properly fund those investments at that time.

Regardless, future Board of Governors members will need to be very mindful of the OBA’s finances. We have more members over the age of 80 than under the age of 30, which will cause increased pressure on the OBA. Additionally, while we hope that inflation continues to be controlled, there is no doubt that the costs of running the OBA will continue to rise over time. One of the things that has put the OBA in a position of strength over the past few years is its strategic reserve. That reserve should be protected and not become a source of funding for losses incurred due to the failure of the OBA to reasonably and appropriately raise the dues level.

I assure you that, with this increase, the OBA will continue to improve its operations and services – not simply to maintain the status quo. Firstly, an organization is only as strong as the people who work for it. This increase allows the OBA to keep its best personnel and invest in future talent. Secondly, the OBA has been focusing more and more on improving its technology over the past couple of years. You may not see everything that is being done, but a lot of work is taking place. Moreover, we have reorganized the OBA Technology Committee and appointed Collin Walke as chair to review what the OBA does today and recommend a future direction for the organization. Thank you, Mr. Walke, for your service.

Hopefully, the discussion above makes clear that we cannot do nothing. To add to that point, this year, the OBA is projected to draw down its strategic reserve by $1.26 million. To be clear, OBA operations run on a close to break even basis. Rather than ongoing operations, it is building costs and maintenance that create the bulk of the loss in 2024. You should know future projected building costs were included in the cash flow projections that were considered when the board evaluated the dues increase to specifically address this issue.

There is another factor to consider: “How does the OBA compare to other bar associations around the country?” Not all bar associations are integrated bars that perform all the functions that the OBA does. Kansas and Colorado, for example, are voluntary bars that are not required to maintain an enforcement arm like the OBA Office of the General Counsel. Others, like Texas, have vastly different membership makeups (e.g., more than 100,000 members compared to the OBA’s 18,000) and can bring in considerably larger sums of money to run their operations.

The best comparisons, I believe, are South Carolina, Alabama, Oregon, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Arizona and Louisiana. Their average dues are $398, so the board’s recommended increase would bring us in line with similarly situated states. With that said, I would not be surprised if some of those states on the lower end raise dues in the next few years, illustrating that the OBA is the bargain it has been over the past decade-plus.

To conclude, I remind all Oklahoma attorneys that practicing law in this state is a privilege and not a right. There are many obligations that come with that privilege, which are regulated, supported and enhanced by the OBA. I think it is more than fair for Oklahoma attorneys to pay for that privilege at a dues level that appropriately supports the OBA’s ongoing operations and appropriate building maintenance and upkeep. Other models would require either increased court fees (burdening some of those Oklahomans less able to pay) and/or funds from Oklahoma’s general revenues (taking away from law enforcement and education). I firmly believe that Oklahoma’s model is the best and most equitable one available.

I humbly ask for your support of the proposed OBA dues increase.

Miles Pringle is executive vice president and general counsel at The Bankers Bank in Oklahoma City.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal – OBJ 95 Vol 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.