Let me preface this post by acknowledging what Patrick Palace, the 2013–14 president of the Washington State Bar Association, shared with me:
I often hear from members asking for more social time. They want a convention, a party, an excuse to get together. They want cheap or free CLEs that are really convenient to attend … all the time. They want the bar to be relevant to them, of value. Fees are always too high and shouldn’t be raised. They want their bar to listen, to care, to jump when they call.
Some members seem to never know what’s happening or who is making decisions for them. They want more more more communication and transparency. (They often get lots of communication, but never see it or read it or listen for it … it’s a bar leaders quandary.)
Attorneys can be challenging members. They are advocates and some are advocates that don’t often agree with each other. What one person says everyone wants, another person says nobody wants.
I do not envy any person who is responsible for leading thousands of lawyers. However, having spent many years taking an active role at a local bar association — being vice-chair then chair of three different sections — I saw first hand the many dysfunctions of the local bar association.
Tim Eigo reflected on the “heyday” of bar associations on his blog, AZ Attorney:
That’s when they [bar associations] controlled most of the means of production, in print and in professional education. It’s when competitors such as podcasts, apps, and downloads didn’t exist. It’s when—kind of—bar associations were record producers. And when we dropped a new album, we could be assured our audience would consume it. The lifting on the part of bars was pretty light.
That’s all changed, of course, and our audience wants a mixtape. That is, they want to curate great content from multiple sources. Smart associations will still be part of that mix, but we’re no longer the only game in town.
I agree with Eigo. Local, non-mandatory bar associations must begin to address the rapidly changing needs of members and move into this century. I would also go further to say members do not want mixtapes. Mixtapes are irrelevant. Instead, we need our local bar associations to be ahead of the game in terms of technology and legal trends. Bar associations should co-facilitate what lies ahead for our rapidly changing profession.
Here are ten suggested ways for local bar associations to better serve its members and stay relevant.
1. Listen to Members
This should be obvious, but many bar associations can not handle any criticism without getting defensive. Maybe it is because many bar associations have been around since the late 1800s, but they really like to maintain the status quo. But if bar associations are not engaging in healthy dialog with its members about their wants and needs, it’s unlikely that its members will continue to pay dues.
As an example, I was responsible for inviting and organizing CLE programs. One speaker told me flat out she will not speak at a local bar association because the way she had been treated (not being greeted, not being offered meals over a lunchtime CLE event, and overall lack of appreciation). I brought this up to the CLE program director, and the response was completely underwhelming. I shared this with other chairs and vice chairs and was surprised to hear this was a common experience.
During another event, where all the local bankruptcy judges were invited, one judge’s name was not on the list; therefore, he could not get past security. And despite the CLE being held before 9 a.m., there was no coffee provided for the speakers. Needless to say, this caused a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety.
Again, when I raised this issue, the response I received was “didn’t anyone tell you? You are responsible for bringing coffee for the speakers.”
2. Foster Sense of Community and Diversity
Diversity should include all cross-sections of the lawyer population. A local bar association should be a place where attorneys from all walks of life feel welcome regardless of age, sex, sexual orientation, and race. Bar associations should also welcome professional diversity, such as lawyers who moved from BigLaw to solo practice or who come from varying practice areas. And while many larger cities have LGBTQ bar associations, the idea is that all local bar associations should make their members feel comfortable.
For this to happen, bar associations must ensure their staff, committee members, and board members reflect the diverse group they are hoping to represent. In addition, speakers at CLEs should also come from a diverse background. Bar associations should also facilitate opportunities for attorneys across generations to interact and develop relationships.
Programs should not only be attractive to BigLaw attorneys (who admittedly will make up a large bulk of many bar associations) but also solo practitioners.
(By the way, if you are trying to increase diversity by hosting a golf tournament, you have failed. Seriously. How about a yoga class instead? According to the ABA, it’s the new golf.)
3. Address Attorney Wellness and Self-Care
You do not need to look hard to know that lawyers suffer from stress, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and even suicide. Local bar associations should facilitate dialog and lift the veil of shame by talking about these issues. And I am not just talking about the one hour of mandatory CLE during which the speaker tells you not to abuse drugs.
Attorneys are rarely taught wellness or self-care techniques. Bar associations should place a stronger emphasis on programs designed to help lawyers maintain their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.
4. Bridge the Gap
Many law students are being forced to hang their shingle after law school because of the current job market. Even those with years of experience in law firms may choose to go solo for various reasons. Bar associations, as well as law schools around the country, are beginning to embrace incubator programs.
These types of programs offer hands-on training on not only the legal practice, but the business end of running a successful solo practice, which would be attractive to younger attorneys and those who are considering going solo.
5. Create Community Space
For many law practices, the cost of renting a physical space can take up a huge percentage of revenue. Some bar associations are embracing the sharing economy and creating coworking spaces for attorneys. Coworking spaces are also appealing to many solo practitioners because they foster a sense of community and relieve the feelings of isolation that many solos experience from working alone all the time. Coworking spaces also offer opportunities to bounce ideas off of other attorneys, refer cases to one another, or just enjoy a bit of water-cooler conversation in between client meetings.
Bar associations can also create community gathering spaces that can be used for non-bar functions such as legal conferences, wellness programs for lawyers, and other programs that align with the bar association’s mission.
6. Let Go and Move Forward
Change is always hard — especially for lawyers. After all, we live by precedents. However, doing things because we’ve always done it that way is a terrible reason for continuing to run programs, events, and groups. If a local bar association hopes to stay relevant in the coming years, it must position itself strategically.
One way local bar associations can decide what legacy programs to keep or let go would be to engage in strategic communications with members and potential members. Reach and engage members by encouraging them to write letters to the editor or by engaging with them on Facebook or Twitter.
Bar associations that are too philosophically married to stare decisis in engaging with lawyers risk extinction.
7. Be Open to Differing Opinions, Feedback, and Criticisms
Receiving criticism is often an unpleasant experience, and lawyers can undoubtedly be harsh with their words. But the way to respond to members is with openness and curiosity.
Determining what makes local bar associations valuable means engaging in meaningful conversations with current and potential members. Lawyers will no longer join a bar association just because they think they should. There are plenty of other options for getting CLE credits, and networking opportunities with other attorneys outside the bar association are easy to find. In other words, local bar associations no longer enjoy the kind of clout they once had.
8. More Engagement, Less Lecture
We learn best when we are engaging and interacting. Some bars (California, for example) require CLEs to be delivered as a lecture. However, CLEs could still be made more interactive by adding some additional time to put into practice what attendees learned.
For example, when I started practicing bankruptcy law, I found it extremely frustrating that all the CLEs were taught in the abstract. There were no opportunities to work through a hypothetical example for completing bankruptcy schedules.
9. Stop Killing Trees
I share a coworking space with a few dozen attorneys. Each month, there is a recycling bin full of local bar association newsletters. Once a year, there are multiple recycling bins full of local bar association phonebooks. I am sure some attorneys appreciate the paper copies, but for attorneys making an effort to have a paperless office, it is frustrating to get piles of paper in the mail. Bar associations should give members the option to opt in to printed publications.
10. Show Appreciation
In the Bay Area, there are probably a dozen or so local bar associations I could join. This also means there are numerous opportunities for taking leadership positions and getting involved with different organizations. One way a local bar association can retain its members is by showing appreciation to those who do join and get involved!
Thank the members who voluntarily choose to share their precious time with you. Show appreciation for the speakers who speak at your events for free. Treating speakers so poorly that they refuse to come back to your organization is unacceptable.
Hopefully this post will serve as the start of a healthy dialog between members, potential members, and local bar associations.
Featured image: “Happy corporate business people talking at meeting at the office. ” from Shutterstock.