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Lawmakers Reject State Bar's Request for $125 Licensing Fee Hike

Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee criticized state bar leaders' decision to give hefty pay raises to employees last year without seeking legislative approval, and money, first.


“So every year you’re going to be asking for a fee increase?” asked Assemblywoman Blanca Pacheco, D-Downey.

State lawmakers on Tuesday rejected state bar leaders’ plea for a $125 increase in lawyer-licensing fees, criticizing the trustees’ decision to give agency employees significant pay raises in 2023 without securing funding for them first.

Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, vetting the annual licensing fee bill for the first time this session, also questioned the bar’s decision to pay $4.4 million a year to lease back office space in the San Francisco building it sold late last year.

Committee members instead endorsed a $65 fee hike for active lawyers and a $16 bump for inactive lawyers in 2025, the majority of which would pay for bar employee salaries and benefits. Lawmakers also urged the bar to find cheaper digs for its approximately 300 San Francisco-based employees.

“While the rank-and-file staff at the bar deserve to be fairly compensated, it’s unfair to this committee to have civil service jobs used as leverage by state bar leadership to demand a fee increase,” Judiciary Committee Chair Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, said.

At the committee hearing in Sacramento, bar officials defended the San Francisco lease costs as fair and said they didn’t know how they could have obtained an advanced legislative appropriation for worker pay raises, which totaled more than 15% for agency attorneys over three years, without violating good-faith bargaining tenets.

“As appreciative as we are, we are concerned that $65 is insufficient” to pursue the agency leaders’ goals, “at least not in the near term,” Brandon Stallings, chair of the bar’s board of trustees, said.

The committee’s vote was a blow to bar leaders’ quest to generate $26 million in new revenues next year to hire additional employees, ramp up the agency’s technology system and expand discipline-related programs in addition to covering employee salary and lease costs.

It was not the Legislature’s final decision. AB 3279 must still be approved by the full Assembly and go through the state Senate vetting process before heading to the governor’s desk.

Still, the committee’s criticism reflected a deep-seated wariness of the agency’s priorities and decision-making despite bar leaders’ insistence that the organization has a new-found commitment to transparency and fiscal discipline.

“So every year you’re going to be asking for a fee increase?” asked Assemblywoman Blanca Pacheco, D-Downey.

“I think if it’s justified, yes,” Stallings said.

Committee members laughed.

The licensing bill as currently written does not include the annual automatic inflationary fee increase that bar officials have sought. Nor does it peg the amount attorneys pay each year to a sliding-fee scale based on their occupations, another change trustees supported. Kalra said he is open to considering the by-job-sector fee proposal although he is concerned about higher administrative costs.

The Judiciary Committee analysis recommended the bar allow its employee vacancy rate to float from its current level of about 8% back to 15% by April 2026 through attrition. That staffing level would allow the agency to pay for future pay raises and promotions without having to ask the Legislature for more money, the analysis stated.

Committee staff say the $65 fee increase would still give the bar enough new funding to pay for programs that better monitor attorneys’ handling of client trust accounts and that redirect low-level first-time ethics offenders from the full-blown disciplinary system.