Going Out of Business, Bar Association Edition

There are people who think “this is the way things have always been done, so no one will question me if I just keep doing it this way.” A lot of this kind of thinking seems to happen in bar associations. In a world of amazing innovation and wonderful new technology, a lot of bar associations are still trudging along well-worn paths. Not all of them, mind you, but many.

I’ve seen bar presidents use the same PowerPoint slides their last three predecessors used, as they lifelessly drone on about “the state of the profession.” They wag their fingers, exhort lawyers to do more pro bono work, and claim to know how to improve the image of our profession.

I often wonder, when I hear that old trope about the “image problem,” if maybe our image problem starts at the top. You know, behind those bar presidents’ wagging fingers.

Bar associations used to be the primary way for lawyers to learn how to improve their practice, and to find other lawyers to help mentor them. Now there’s the Internet, which is practically free and has a completely global reach (for example, one out of every six humans on the planet Earth has a Facebook account). Millions of people, including lawyers, have blogs. Millions of people know how to use Google to find information. Many of them do it from their smartphones.

How has this rather powerful trend affected the ways that bar associations put out their information?

When you search Google, how much free information do you find from bar associations on how to practice law better? How many free online CLE videos does your local bar have up on YouTube or Vimeo? Have they even posted that slide deck the new president uses as his outline when he gives his monotone monologue about the state of the profession?

Maybe they’re too busy, which would be understandable. But maybe they’re not too busy. Maybe they figure it’s okay to keep doing it the same old way.

And maybe they’ll wind up being largely irrelevant to those who really want the profession to improve.



  1. It sounds like you had a bad experience with a bar association and that can certainly happen. But I think it’s a bad idea to generalize about bar associations just like it would be a bad idea to generalize about bloggers who are long on rant and short on facts. Your criticism does not apply to the DC Bar where I’ve worked for the last five years after retiring from a 28 year private practice. We are the second largest bar in the USA with over 99,000 members and have a whole division dedicated to free and confidential service to our members that is very popular and very busy. We have ethics counsel available by phone and email. We have counselors available for stressed out members. We have private and speedy arbitration available for fee disputes. We have monthly two-day programs available for lawyers going from big to small, a huge trend in our bar. We have a one-of-a-kind ten week course with day and evening sessions for lawyers in small firms. We have lawyers who help lawyers with business issues and make office calls. All of these services are free for our DC Bar members. We conduct fee seminars on social media for our members. So I rise to defend my bar from your criticism of ‘bar associations’ because you got it wrong if you are thinking of the DC Bar.

    Best wishes,
    Dan Mills
    Assistant Director, Practice Management Advisory Service
    Regulation Counsel
    DC Bar
    1101 K Street NW, 2nd Floor
    Washington, DC 20009

    • Hey Dan:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments on my Lawerist blog post (see below), and your earnest defense of what your bar association is doing. I definitely was NOT thinking of your bar association, and specifically put in a sentence that said “not all [bar associations trudge the well worn path], but many” do.

      My goal is not to sweepingly criticize bar associations. My hope is that more of them work harder to take advantage of new technology and new approaches to do more to represent their members. Salmen Kahn created Kahn Academy in his spare time using YouTube and Yahoo drawing tools. There are over 4,000 videos on that site now, and most of them were created by Mr. Kahn. Grade school and high school teachers are using those videos to help their students.

      People in the educational field should be asking why it was possible for one man to use free tools and the Internet to build something that, one would think, teachers and full-time educators could should have built. We should all be trying harder, and asking more questions. That’s all I’m saying.

      It sounds like you are, so I applaud you. Let’s go find more people like you!

  2. Avatar Judson Haverkamp says:

    Mr. Svenson certainly has some good points as regards the historic role bar associations and other associations had in disseminating information related to the practice. But he errs insofar as he conflates the practice and profession of law and reduces the whole to an information processing scheme. The internet and other technologies certainly have expanded practitioners’ ability to gather information and even to establish connections with a wider range of persons. But I submit that, technology notwithstanding, there’s no substitute for face-to-face relationships in an association when the goal is to foster and sustain a profession that by definition upholds common values and standards, takes responsibility for deciding its membership, and acknowledges that being given unique access to the levers of governmental power carries with it an obligation to serve the public. Rereading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America on the subject of associations wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

    • Sam Glover Sam G. says:

      I think we can all agree that there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. But if bar associations stubbornly refuse to evolve with that as an excuse, they aren’t going to last.

  3. We are writing as officers of The Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF) to tell you about just a few of our bar association’s efforts to provide value to our members, remain relevant, evolve, and thrive. We believe that a number of local bar associations are providing timely offerings to meet the needs of those they serve. For instance, at BASF, some of our efforts include:

    1. Mind the Gap, an innovative program to help new lawyers who are struggling to find employment. The initiative includes: practical and lawyering skills training, as well as training and information regarding how to start a practice; gaining hands on experience through our Justice & Diversity Center’s (JDC) Legal Services Program case work; mentoring from JDC staff attorneys and other volunteers, including alumni networks; networking opportunities and connecting participants with legal employers for contract or other legal positions; and debt reduction information and seminars. All of these components – including select practice-enhancing MCLE coursework — are offered without charge to participants.

    2. Tech Tuesdays, a free bi-monthly webinar series for BASF members, which cover the latest technology issues and cutting-edge topics relevant to lawyers.

    3. The BASF solo and small law firm listserv, which is free to BASF members and one of our most active resources for members on a range of topics.

    4. Our legal ethics hotline, which provides an opportunity for BASF members to discuss ethics-related questions in a confidential manner with an experienced Legal Ethics Committee member. The hotline is an exclusive BASF benefit and is free to members.

    5. Our Lawyer Referral and Information Service’s Attorney-to-Attorney Advice Program, a free service that puts newer attorneys in touch with more experienced practitioners willing to advise them. It also works well for the seasoned practitioner who runs into an area of law they are unfamiliar with, but which impacts their case.
    In all these ways and others, BASF is working hard to remain relevant and vital to its members and community and to provide the tools necessary for their continued success.

    Christopher C. Kearney, President
    Stephanie P. Skaff, President-Elect
    Timothy W. Moppin, Treasurer
    Michael F. Tubach, Secretary

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