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Thousands of attorneys are ineligible to handle cases in New Jersey because they ignored a modest annual fee.
Nearly 7,000 haven't paid in years -- some more than a decade -- and now risk getting booted from the rolls of licensed attorneys, state officials said last week.
And anyone who is looking to pay up in order to get back to work had better do it soon, because the fees will double at the end of the month, said Kenneth Bossong, director of the New Jersey Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection.
"They have a duty to ... make payment, unless they are qualified for an exemption, and these are folks who have done none of that for many, many, many years," said Bossong, whose office maintains the list.
Court rules dictate lawyers must pay an annual assessment to practice law, said Tammy Kendig, a spokeswoman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Most pay $190, but some groups, including very new and very old attorneys, are exempt.
The money is used to help pay for various programs affiliated with the courts, including the attorney disciplinary system; a fund that provides mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment for attorneys and judges; and the Fund for Client Protection, which reimburses clients who have been bilked by unscrupulous attorneys.
There are currently 13,356 attorneys who are on the ineligible list, Bossong said. Of those, at least 6,780 have been ineligible for six or more consecutive years.
Starting next fall, those who haven't paid in at least seven years will be taken off the rolls. Previously, an attorney could stay on the ineligible list indefinitely.
"Now, no amount of money is going to get you back into the bar if you haven't paid for seven years," said Kendig.
Should they get removed, it will be equivalent to someone "resigning without prejudice," Bossong said. In order to join the more than 55,000 eligible attorneys, any lawyer whose license is revoked must not only pay a fine, but also take the bar examination again.
"You would have to follow all the steps that a newly licensed attorney would have to go through," Kendig said.
It is hard to know much about the people who have been on the list for years, officials said. It is likely many moved away after being admitted and their New Jersey license is no longer relevant. Others are likely out-of-state attorneys who didn't pay because they couldn't afford to open an office here, a requirement that recently has changed. A few may even have died, Bossong said.
Some attorneys "have clearly lost interest in their license to practice law in New Jersey and there is simply no reason to carry them on the rolls," Bossong said. "Some have been on the list so long we know we don't even have a good address for them."
There is no single mechanism to make sure ineligible attorneys are staying out of the courts, but members of the bar and the bench often call the judiciary to check whether names are on the "Ineligible Attorneys List," Kendig said.
Occasionally, attorneys who don't pay their assessment fees still try to practice law in New Jersey. One recently had the misfortune of filing a case against a client of New Jersey State Bar President Edwin McCreedy.
All of his attempts to find the other lawyer were stymied, so he contacted the state Administrative Office of the Courts to get a working phone number or address.
"Upon checking to see if he had an office, I find out he was on the list of ineligible attorneys," McCreedy said. So he reported the attorney to the state Office of Attorney Ethics, and disciplinary proceedings are pending.
It used to be that attorneys who were on the ineligible list could stay there forever. And each year, Bossong's office would generate and send out a notice. Some attorneys ignored the notices, but for other attorneys, the notices were being sent to old addresses.
So Bossong asked the court to consider revising the rules so that after a few years, the recalcitrant lawyers would be removed from the rolls.
The state bar group initially objected to the idea that lawyers who were decommissioned would have to retake the bar exam, arguing getting through the exam once was hard enough.
But the fact that the lapse must be for seven years made the requirement more palatable to the bar group, said McCreedy.
"If you are getting this notice every year for seven years, at some point, you ought to indicate if you are going to practice or not," McCreedy said.
Any lawyer who hasn't paid up by the end of the year will face stiffer fees. After Dec. 30, the cost of reinstatement doubles to $50 for lawyers who have been ineligible for a year and to $100 for lawyers declared ineligible for two to six years or more, said Bossong.Fees can be mailed to New Jersey Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection, P.O. Box 961, Trenton, N.J. 08625-0961.