How Can Bar Associations Stay Relevant?

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The legal market is changing!

— every single legal consultant
since the beginning of lawyers

Despite my annoyance at the monotonous repetition of this fact (the legal market is always changing, but rarely changes much), there are two things that really do seem to be changing for many lawyers: fees and the value of bar associations.

The glut of lawyers, the incursion of legal document companies and non-lawyer service providers, and plain old competition among firms seems to be pushing profits down. And the value proposition of most bar associations is pretty weak, these days. As firms are trying to streamline their business models, it would not surprise me to find that many are deciding to cut bar dues (in states where bar dues are not mandatory, at least).

Frederic Ury and Jordan Furlong have some ideas on how bar associations can stay avoid this.

  • “Streamline lawyers’ practices” by “offering CLEs on process improvement and technology use, providing discounted rates for cost-lowering suppliers, and helping lawyers improve their web presence.”
  • “Leverage commoditized work” by “producing high-quality, bar-certified forms and documents and offering them to members free of charge, and by offering CLEs about how to move up clients’ value chain.”
  • “Price services rationally” by “publishing ideas about ways to price legal services that focus on client value, competitive intelligence, and cost control, and by certifying CLEs that help train lawyers to be effective pricers.”

(Ernie Svenson made some of the same suggestions on Lawyerist a couple of months ago.)

At the moment, the free Fastcase access offered by my bar association is pretty much the only reason I am still a member. It’s cheaper to be a member than to get my own Fastcase subscription. Ury and Furlong suggest that, if my bar association offered better forms (it already does this), some brochures about alternative billing, and more CLEs, I would have more reasons to stay.

I admit, I don’t find that to be a very compelling argument. I don’t have the answer to how bar associations can stay relevant to the average lawyer, but forms and CLE don’t cut it. Bar associations aren’t plain old service providers. Plenty of private companies are better at forms, and probably CLE, and it doesn’t seem likely that bar associations will be competitive in those markets. If the value proposition is just dollars and cents, bar associations aren’t likely to win.

Don’t get me wrong; I think it is a good idea for bar associations to provide these things. I just don’t think they will be enough. Bar associations are professional associations — just not, generally, very interesting ones. In addition to offering free forms and CLE, I think what would get me most interested in my bar association would be a return to basics: building relationships among members.

This could be especially valuable for solos. I get the best forms from my colleagues, but I wish I had an easier time finding mentors when I moved into a completely new practice area. I like to learn about technology and marketing and stuff, but I always find that the people doing the most interesting things in their law practices are in the audience at CLEs, not on stage. And, perhaps most crucially, I can get CLE credit just about anywhere, but I don’t have a local softball team to join.

If bar associations would solve some of these problems, we might not be discussing how they can stay relevant.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vculibraries/6032081853/)

Practice Management

  • shg

    Now this is an interesting post. As for Jordan, et al., it’s the old hammer/nail analogy. They promote their agenda, and the answer to every problem is technology.

    But your point raises a very interesting question: bar associations used to serve as a gathering place, a watering hole, for lawyers to hang out with their own. Young lawyers met old lawyers. New met experienced. Old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while had a chance to get together again.

    But that’s hard work, leaving your office, going to functions, paying money for rubber chicken dinners and lousy CLEs to hear people who have nothing to offer. Today, we have other places to hang out, Facebook and Twitter coming immediately to mind. The problem is that they’re a pale substitute for what bar associations once offered. Yet, they seem to have affected the way we behave enough to have supplanted the comraderie bar associations once offered.

    Will bar associations ever be able to get that back? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Most of us, and particularly newer/younger lawyers, live digital lives. Who needs a bar association when you’ve got Facebook lawyer friends and twitter lawyer followers? Unfortunately, the former will never be the same as the latter.

  • Jack Roberts

    Timely post, Sam–My MSBA membership is due for renewal and I have decided to cancel my membership. I agree that Fastcase access is a good reason to maintain membership, but as a business and real estate attorney who does not litigate, I have very little use for Fastcase. The forms are nice, but once you download the forms you need, how often will you need the resource? I can attend MSBA CLEs as a non-member, and the discount is not enough reason alone to pay hundreds of dollars for dues. The lack of value, as well as my professional disagreement with a few other MSBA policies and approaches, made my decision to cancel easy.

  • Jordan Furlong

    Sam, thanks for your link and comments. You’re right that bar associations are in a tough market if they choose to compete solely on forms or CLEs, and they certainly need other weapons in their armoury (more on that in a moment). The fact of the matter, though, is that they’ll find themselves in tough markets no matter which direction they move. But what associations can still bring to these markets that others (for the time being) can’t is brand recognition, legitimacy, and authority.

    Many bar associations find, when they do a sober inventory of their true assets, that they have far fewer than they supposed, especially in terms of the relevance of their activities and services. What most do still have is residual levels of recognition, trust and respect among members of the profession; they need to both maintain those levels and leverage them. One way to do that is to combine the status of association reputation with an instinct for what lawyers really need in a practical sense. That’s why I think “Bar-approved” forms and CLEs would still have built-in advantages over those supplied by private-sector entities with shorter track records and less prestige (especially if coupled with bar-affiliated professional insurance companies).

    I agree with the value of building relationships among lawyers; the problem is that this field is just as crowded with competitors (old and new) as firms and CLEs. Many Bar associations can trace their roots back to the late 19th or early 20th centuries, to a time when association membership was virtually the only way lawyers could connect with colleagues farther away than the next street over. Today, many lawyers have employment networks (law firms), enterprise networks (Lex Mundi et al) and practice area networks (speciality associations) at their disposal; now add LinkedIn and similar online services to the list. “Connecting lawyers with each other” is a valuable service, which is precisely why so many entities are in on it. Bar associations (especially those based on regional or geographic alignments) have just as tough a road to hoe here.

    Now, I’m on record as saying that what bar associations really need is become aspirational entities: to represent and fulfill most lawyers’ desire to be part of a profession that aspires to higher and better things than simply making a living. That’s a much narrower field, with fewer competitors: it’s very difficult (although not impossible) to visualize LegalZoom and its ilk getting into that line of work. But it’s also a very tough goal to achieve, not least because it operates on a different sense of “value” than the ones lawyers have been trained to expect. Frankly, if free access to Fastcase is all that’s keeping you as an association member, then it’s only a matter of when, not if, that “value” advantage disappears and your membership goes with it. There has to be something more to association “value” — and along with the process of identifying that value comes a recognition and acceptance of tough choices about who you are as an association and what you stand for.

    I addressed the National Association of Bar Executives (NABE) a few months back, and one of my central messages to them was this: you need to get used to the idea of being smaller. Associations (like many other entities in the legal market such as law schools and legal publishers) have long been accustomed to equating size with success: if you have lots of members and are always adding more, then you’re #winning. I suggested to these bar leaders that they abandon the idea of growth for growth’s sake and start aiming to become focused, exclusive groups that, yes, might be smaller, but that have very high levels of satisfaction and loyalty, because they only do a few things and they do them extremely well.

    The legal market now and in the future is too fractured and specialized for any all-purpose, general-interest association to serve adequately and comprehensively. Decide what you want to be and who you want to be for: that’s good advice, as far as I’m concerned, for both bar associations and the lawyers they hope will join them.

  • http://www.ofaolain.com David Whelan

    The challenge seems to be different depending on the type of bar association. The larger the area covered (national, state/regional), the more likely they’ll have the financial mass to support the staff, buying power, and other resources to deliver some of the complex services that lawyers value. Many of these are, as you say, better delivered by organizations specializing in the service or resource, not the membership association. Different skill sets.

    At the same time, a lot of what lawyers seem to value comes from their city or county association, because that brings the locals together. But many of those don’t have the resources to deliver the types of services beyond the networking, bar directory, and CLE. Bar associations of any size face challenges creating the types of services you describe (certification processes for forms or software, for example) because few have the volunteer or staff expertise, let alone the agility, to execute.

    I often wonder if its because the associations have split personalities, with member dollars being spent on lots of “nice to have” soft activities as much as on direct-to-member benefits. A shift in philosophy might free up resources but, if it’s a mandatory bar, there’s no real incentive. The value-price pressure, and the “bowling alone” shift in participation doesn’t make it easier for associations to respond.

  • Peter Mikkalson

    Thank You. Bar Associations should provide network and support opportunities for their members. But more than that, they should also mirror their membership. The MN State Bar Association seems consumed with the notion of upholding the stodgy hierarchy of republican politics and conservative business practices. I rarely recognized myself among its members and the leadership was woefully out of touch with the post-crash predicament of most of this state’s attorneys, i.e., those not practicing at white shoe law firms or employed by government. I don’t think I’d ever read an article critical of the state’s oversight practices of attorneys. For me-the last straw was MSBA’s ridiculous allegiance to Judicial Retention Referendum. After twenty years of continuous dues, I quit-and I said why. I’m willing to bet the decline in membership is a steady topic of discussion, too bad it only occurs among those unwilling to address substantive change.

  • Chad Burton

    Weirdly, I find this to be a fascinating topic. I take an old school view on bar association involvement. Instead of retyping my take on it, here are my thoughts: http://perspectiveburton.com/2012/08/18/bar-associations-law-schools-a-solution-for-new-lawyers/

    Here is the follow up: http://perspectiveburton.com/2012/11/17/creating-better-new-lawyers-through-law-school-and-bar-association-synchronization/

    It has prompted good discussions and actual action to work on the issue, for what that is worth.

  • carolyn Elefant

    Build relationships? Ha! ha! The DC Bar still refuses to have a listserve. This is 2013. Back when I was on an LPM committee in 2008, I urged the bar to create a listserve and finally resigned in protest.

    That is the other problem. The reason that bar associations fail is because they can’t attract good people. Good people don’t want to go to monthly meetings and set up a committee to study whether to set up a committee to evaluate x, y or z. They want to do things, take action and not endure 7 levels of bureaucratic hell.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Actively refuses? Or has mired the decision in committee? (Perhaps a distinction without a difference.)

      I have to say, the solosmall list the MSBA sponsors is one of the most-valuable things it does. I think it would lose hordes of solos if it dropped the email list.

  • Jordan Furlong

    So I’ve gone and expanded on my comment in a new full-length post at Law21, if you’re interested: http://www.law21.ca/2013/07/transforming-the-traditional-bar-association/

  • Stephen B. Syptak

    There is a Facebook page entitled “Make the State Bar of Texas Relevant.” http://www.facebook.com/groups/204705479568908/
    Obviously, there are quite a few Texas lawyers that are not happy with the current Bar Association.

  • Bob Ambrogi

    I have to heartily agree with Sam’s point that fancy forms, pricing advice and more CLEs will not make bars relevant or necessary. I struggle with why I maintain my state bar membership. One reason personal to me is that I am heavily involved in the state bar foundation as an officer and volunteer and believe its work in supporting legal aid programs is extremely important. But, frankly, I could remain involved in the bar foundation without sending my annual dues check to the bar association.

    I do think, even in this virtual world we inhabit, bars serve a role in facilitating networking and mentorship. I also think bars can and should play an central role in helping to educate the public about the law, lawyers and their legal rights.

    I am currently trying to think through a related question, which involves how bars should adapt their communications in light of changes in technology and practice. I will be speaking to the NABE communications division in September on this topic. It’s tough, because communications staff at bars have the double challenge of making their bars relevant and speaking through the clatter of Facebook, Twitter, etc.

    I don’t know what the answers are. I would like to see bars succeed and prove themselves relevant, but maybe I’m just hanging on to fond memories of what bars used to be.