Bars are watching the budget, but not cutting technology

Volume 28 Number 3

By

While many bar associations have had to cut back on spending (see “Balancing the budget: Associations and foundations feel the strain,” page 10), when it comes to purchasing and upgrading technology products and services, a recent unscientific sampling indicates many are also factoring in the need to stay current in what they use and what they offer their members.

“ISBA, for this next fiscal year, had to balance its budget. As a result, we ended up reducing programs and some staffing by an overall total of about $300,000,” says Illinois State Bar Association Executive Director Bob Craghead. “Notwithstanding that, our leadership recognized the vital importance of having a sound membership database and functioning information technology system for the staff so that we could best serve the members.”

ISBA leaders approved creation of a staff officer position to oversee the bar’s information and technology services, something the ISBA has not had before, he says. The new staffer will oversee the ongoing development of the ISBA’s membership database and its internal information technology systems, as well as play a role in the further development of the bar’s Web site.

While the bar will continue upgrading and maintaining its internal network, bigger technology initiatives will wait until the new position is filled, which the bar expects will happen soon. The bar will develop an overall technology plan with the new manager, also something it had not had before, Craghead says.

The Allegheny County Bar Association has been doing significant upgrades on the technology front over the past year or so, according to Executive Director David Blaner. In March of last year, the bar completed installation of new association management software to replace programs that were 27 years old, Blaner says. After a few months of working out issues pertaining to conversion, database cleanup, and staff training, Blaner says he considers the installation a success, with one exception: “The report writer in the software package is very complex to use, so we are looking into using an off-the-shelf package to generate additional reports.” New software was installed at the for-profit subsidiary and the Allegheny County Bar Foundation once the association installation was complete.

Next up is an upgrade to the 13-year-old software used to publish the bar’s daily Pittsburgh Legal Journal. Blaner says the bar is now evaluating various software systems. As part of that project, the bar will also implement a new e-commerce system, which Blaner expects will be in place within the next year. Development also continues on ACBA’s e-newsletter and lawyer referral service software, which it markets to other bar associations.

The bar has also completed a revamp of its Web site, to freshen a version that was about two years old. Blaner has some words of wisdom for anyone contemplating a redesign, especially when budgets are tight. “[Our] Web site redesign was accomplished by in-house staff,” he says. “This resulted in a substantial savings.”

Online services for members, staff

The District of Columbia Bar is devoting resources to its online efforts, says Communications Director Cynthia Kuhn. In the past year, the bar has introduced online judicial evaluations and online voting for association offices, and recently added online dues payments to its offerings.

To use online dues payment, members must activate their online accounts by signing up on the Web site, which allows the bar to verify their membership information. Kuhn says 7,000 of the bar’s 77,000 members signed up in the first month.

The dues module is integrated with the bar’s master membership system, so members can change their contact information online. “We had 800 changes entered in one day,” Kuhn notes.

In September of last year, the bar launched online registration for events such as CLE seminars, Kuhn says. This system also integrates with the master membership system. One initial stumbling block was deciding how to accommodate nonmembers who wanted to have an online account for registering but were not in the membership database, Kuhn notes, but this was resolved fairly easily. Everyone registers through the bar’s online events calendar; members use their existing online account, and nonmembers create a new account.

Once an association develops the technology to collect information online, it becomes a matter of deciding which areas to apply it to, Kuhn says, explaining, “It’s a cost/benefit question: What does it cost to build vs. what it saves us?” Not having staffers key in data is a big time saver, not to mention the reduction in entry errors, she says.

The DCB is also beginning to use the information-gathering technology internally. The bar conducts “upward feedback,” where employees evaluate their supervisors (see “360° evaluations: A case study from the D.C. Bar,” November-December 2002, page 23). What used to be done on paper is now handled by a secure online form, which makes it easier to collect and tabulate the data.

Upgrading workstations, eliminating paper

On the agenda—and in the budget—for the Lancaster Bar Association this year is upgrading its workstations, according to Executive Director Evelyn Sullivan. The LBA’s five workstations have all been bought at different times and are all running different versions of software, Sullivan says. “I’d like to get all of us on the same plane, simultaneously, for the first time in about 1,000 years,” she jokes.

The bar uses its computers for word processing, accounting, and its internal database, which it had custom designed by a local developer. Membership, lawyer referral service, and CLE credit tracking are among the features of the database, which the LBA markets to other bar associations.

The LBA finished a redesign of its Web site last year, including a new members-only section that debuted at the end of the year. The bar plans to put its legal journal online in the members-only section, but has no plans to eliminate the hard copy. Its quarterly newsletter is a different story: The LBA will post that in the members-only section, too, and hopes to wean members from the print version within the next two years. Within six months to a year, the bar hopes to eliminate its monthly hard-copy announcements about CLE offerings.

The bar is also expanding the use of mass e-mails as a way to communicate with members. The LBA has e-mail addresses for 527 of its 700 members, and is attempting to obtain more.

Beefing up the Web site

The Colorado Bar Association is considering beefing up the search engine on its Web site, according to Deputy Executive Director Greg Martin. “As you put more and more stuff on your site, then the search engine power and capability gets to be a bigger issue,” he says. At press time, Martin said the bar was evaluating various options and may make a decision soon.

The bar is also considering adding a legal research product for its members and is evaluating whether to offer Casemaker, which for a fee to the association would allow members to conduct online research at low or no cost. “It’s a huge decision for our bar,” Martin says. Because people tend to expect something to be there once you start offering it, the bar needs to decide whether it’s willing to make the long-term commitment, he says. Other options the bar is looking at include expanding its current database of Colorado opinions, and taking advantage of discount programs offered by the major legal research providers.

The New York State Bar Association is planning some fine-tuning to the Web site overhaul it completed in 2002, according to Associate Executive Director John Willliamson. “We want to upgrade the content and improve the navigation,” he says, adding that the site areas for committees and sections are a particular focus for improvement.

Another area scheduled for enhancement is the My NYSBA section, where members can see the information most relevant to them when they log on to the site, Williamson says. Up and running now in the My NYSBA section is a CLE tracker that allows members to keep track of credits they’ve earned.

The bar is testing an e-forum module that will allow section and committee members to communicate with each other more effectively. Another new tool is largely invisible to members but helpful for staff: a newly installed survey module that allows the bar to gather member data.

The site overhaul that took place in 2002 had been planned for some time, so funding was not a concern, Williamson explains. Still, the downturn in the economy means the NYSBA must carefully weigh investments in technology for maximum return on investment, he says.

The bar is also continuing with its long-term plan to replace staffers’ hardware on a rotating basis, so it doesn’t face a major expense in that area at any one time.

Economy is a factor

The State Bar of California has been testing an online dues payment system, according to Senior Executive for Information Technologies Victor Rowley. The system was pilot tested with new admittees in June, with approximately 20 percent of this group paying online. “This gave us a chance to iron out the kinks,” Rowley says. Positive experiences reported by the pilot group were a deciding factor in the bar’s decision to make online payment available to all the bar’s 190,000 members in mid-November.

One issue the bar struggled with was whether to charge a convenience fee to members who pay dues online, to recoup the significant extra costs the bar faces in processing the transactions. While most e-commerce sites don’t charge an extra fee, those who renew their car registrations online in California pay an extra $4, Rowley notes. The new admittees who participated in the pilot were not charged any extra fees, but the Board of Governors decided a $9.50 convenience fee was appropriate when online payment rolled out to the general membership. The board will reconsider the fee at the end of the 2004 payment cycle.

The economy has had an impact on some decisions, Rowley says. His bar had considered creating a call center, which members could reach through the phone or Web site, and have one point of contact with the association. “They’re nice systems, and we would like them, but we have budgetary constraints,” he says.

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