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Fewer bar governors in the future?

Bar board brainstorms how big it should be

The Missouri Bar Board of Governors is trying to decide whether becoming a leaner operation is worth the political headaches it would take to get there.

At its meeting this month in Columbia, the 45-member board is expected to consider whether it is too big, and whether the districts its governors serve continue to effectively represent the lawyers who live there. Following a work session last Thursday, a committee studying the issue will make a report, although it’s not clear if the board will take immediate action.

Pat Starke

Pat Starke

Bar president Pat Starke, who appointed the committee, said “we may end up doing exactly nothing.” But it’s a discussion he thinks ought to be had.

“An unexamined life is not worth living,” he said.

As anyone who has ever attended a board of governors meeting can attest, a conversation among 45 people can be unwieldy.

“There’s a real different dynamic when you have 40 people around the table than when you have 20 people,” Gregg Lombardi, a recently elected governor and the head of Legal Aid of Western Missouri, said during a discussion of the issue at the board’s May meeting.

But Missouri is a big state. Outside of the urban areas, many of the governors serve districts that cover 15 counties or more. A smaller board could leave just a handful of governors to represent vast numbers of rural counties.

Charles Curless, a retired judge and governor from southwestern Missouri, said in May that his 10-county district was large enough that “I can’t go around and ask [lawyers] what they’d like me to do.”

“I’d prefer our country lawyers not to be bullied by you guys from St. Louis and Kansas City,” he joked.

Ready to shrink?

Becoming larger isn’t on the table for now, although Missouri would be in good company if it grew. According to a 2011 report from the American Bar Association, boards for state bar associations comparable to Missouri’s range from as few as 17 members in Washington to as many as 160 in Georgia.

If the board does shed some of its members, it would reverse the course of the last 20 years, where the tendency had been to add seats. The last time the board redrew its district boundaries, which took effect in 1996, the board was expanded by seven seats to 42. Five years ago, the board added three “diversity” seats to increase minority participation.

mapWEBThe diversity seats are elected at-large from the state’s three appellate districts, and two other governors — the immediate past president and the representative of the Young Lawyers’ Section — serve roles that aren’t specifically tied to a geographic area of the state. The remaining 40 governors are elected to represent lawyers in 15 districts. But it’s not a perfect representative democracy.

According to the bar, there are just over 23,000 lawyers in Missouri. That suggests that the board’s 40 district governors should each represent about 575 lawyers. In reality, the number of lawyers per governor varies from as few as 161 (in northwestern Missouri’s District 1) to as many as 874 (in District 8, which includes Clay, Platte and eastern Jackson counties). The district that is closest to matching the ideal is Kansas City, where eight governors split representation of the 4,548 lawyers in District 12.

Starke is quick to note, however, that the bar doesn’t operate under the one-person, one-vote requirement that state and federal legislative districts do. While that means that rural areas are overrepresented, it also prevents the formation of geographically monstrous districts. Starke noted that all the governors are volunteers who are already busy with their practices.

“You don’t want to burn your people out by saying, ‘Gee, you’ve got to drive all the way from Lee’s Summit to Hannibal to meet with your constituents,’” he said.

Last time around

But proportional representation can’t be ignored either, as the bar’s last redistricting effort showed. Jennifer Gille Bacon, a former board member who spearheaded the effort 20 years ago, said one major concern was the underrepresentation of St. Louis County. Under the bar’s original districts, which dated to the 1940s, St. Louis had seven seats and St. Louis County had four. But in the ensuing decades, the city’s population fell while that of the surrounding county exploded.

Bacon said the board wanted to add as few seats as possible, but stripping representatives from St. Louis was politically unfeasible. The board settled on adding three seats to the county while eliminating one in the city by declining to fill the seat of a retiring governor. But, Bacon said, it was still a tough sell within the board.

“My guess is if you put it to a lawyer-wide vote in St. Louis, it never would have happened,” she said.

Population shifts aren’t the only changes to consider. Longtime board members say that lawyers from large firms once made up a major portion of the board, but that’s no longer the case. The board’s president-elect, Jack Brady, of Polsinelli in Kansas City, is the only large-firm attorney currently on the board. (A few other governors hail from big-firm backgrounds but now have their own practices.)

The next largest firm represented on the board is 40-member Lashly & Baer, home to governor Mark Levison. Seventeen governors hail from firms of five or fewer lawyers. Many don’t hail from law firms at all but represent corporations, are in the public sector or work for nonprofits such as Legal Services organizations.

David Renz, a University of Missouri-Kansas City business professor who heads the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership, is helping the bar study its governance issue and made a presentation to the working committee last week. In an interview, Renz said he can’t simply recommend a number of board members that the bar should shoot for. The best size for the board, he said, depends entirely on what goals the board wants to accomplish.

“There’s no single right answer,” he said.