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.