Growth potential: Training helps bars broaden the circle of leadership

Volume 28 Number 4

By

On a warm, sunny morning in September, Terry Tolliver found himself transforming … from a giant into an elf, then into a wizard. It was difficult for Tolliver, who felt a little out of his element while roaring like a giant, cupping his hands over his ears, and wiggling them like an elf.

“It was hard for everybody,” he laughs. “I’m glad there were no cameras.” Tolliver, in the company of 24 equally self-conscious colleagues, was participating in a cooperative team-building exercise during a kickoff retreat of the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Bar Leader Series, a learning-intensive, nine-month leadership program developed by the IBA last year.

Bar leadership programs have dotted the legal landscape for many years. But many say the past few years have seen a flush of new programs at the state and local level aimed at identifying and training potential leadership candidates from within association membership.

The impetus for some is a declining number of prospects from which to fill leadership positions within the bar. Others are in the throes of reassessing their tangible assets and sharpening their focus, and wish to build a more solid, more dynamic organization. Some seek to achieve diversity among their leadership. Some strive for a better standing in the community. For whatever reason, all are recognizing the benefits of identifying and training leadership-minded volunteers to lead their organizations.

Tapping tomorrow’s leaders

As Cincinnati attorney Mike Neumark views it, there are two primary benefits a leadership program can offer an association. For one, “It raises the level of practice of members of the bar in the community,” he explains, which was his primary purpose in conceiving the Cincinnati Academy of Leadership for Lawyers. Issues of professionalism and civility—“the two cornerstones of practice that have a direct impact upon one’s credit,” he says—are a major component of the CALL training program.

The other benefit, which he did not foresee when he started CALL, is that it identifies future leaders for the bar association. “It gets attorneys involved that otherwise might not be involved,” he notes. Since its inception during Neumark’s term as CBA President in 1996, more than 150 attorneys have graduated from CALL. Of the 23 members of the Cincinnati Bar Association’s board of trustees, 15 are CALL alumni. At the helm of some of the CBA’s more than 60 professional and board committees are 22 more.

After a two-day leadership weekend, during which, among other activities, participants learn about their personalities by taking the Myers Briggs test, CALL participants attend five monthly, all-day sessions. The topics covered are: the economics of law; ethics, justice, and values; leadership; and leadership through service. Recruiting big-name speakers helps boost attendance, Neumark notes; past speakers have included ABA President Dennis W. Archer and ABA Executive Director Robert Stein.

The Santa Clara County (Calif.) Bar Association’s Barristers Leadership Training Program is seeing similar success. Current President Lisa Herrick is a graduate of the program’s inaugural class of 1994. “Since that time, virtually every participant of the program has gone on to hold some kind of leadership in the bar, by either chairing a committee or section, or by serving on the board,” she says, and points out another benefit—sustainability.

“I’ve been doing this for 12 years,” she says of her leadership roles within the organization. “At some point my energy and enthusiasm will wane. Identifying and training young lawyers to be leaders of the bar infuses new blood, fresh ideas, and new cultural perspectives, which serves to build a stronger community with a longer lifespan.”

A range of approaches

Bar leadership academies vary in duration, some meeting over a short period and others throughout the course of a full year, depending on the depth and complexity of training offered. Some train a league of few while others educate as many as 25 at a time. Some curricula focus on the nuts and bolts of leadership, while others follow a more holistic approach.

The programs’ formats are often dependent on associations’ budgets, though the size of the bar is not necessarily indicative of the size of the budget. The 3,400-member Mecklenburg County (N.C.) Bar has a budget of $30,000 for its Bar Leadership Institute. The nearly 19,000-member Louisiana State Bar Association produces its leadership training with as little as $5,000. Among the bars Bar Leader talked to, none boast a profit for their undertakings, but many break even, or at least come close, by charging tuition.

Some focus predominantly on the workings of the association and the opportunities for leadership that lie within. In its 11th year, SCCBA’s four-month Barristers Leadership Training Program provides a half-day session on leadership skills followed by an intensive orientation to the SCCBA, requiring participants to attend meetings of its Board of Trustees, Finance and Executive Committees, and its Barristers Board and other SCCBA committees.

“There is no way to spell out what a finance committee accomplishes without seeing leadership in action,” says Executive Director Christine Burdick. “Explaining it doesn’t give the same feel as actually watching an issue go from one session, to the next level, and on to the board.” Requiring participants to experience the many aspects of the association’s life system makes it possible for leadership-minded volunteers to identify future areas in which they may wish to participate.

And keeping the program concise makes it more attractive to those who have to take time away from the office to make the trek to San Jose or Palo Alto to attend. The SCCBA accepts up to a dozen applicants, and charges tuition of $45 to help offset the costs associated, about $3,000. This past year’s group had four participants; Burdick notes that the ongoing economic crisis in the Silicon Valley may have made many potential participants hesitant to leave their desks.

The Louisiana State Bar Association’s six-month Leadership LSBA has a similar curriculum, with an annual budget of $5,000 set aside to reimburse participants for their costs to participate, such as travel, lodging, and meals. LSBA President Wayne J. Lee believes it to be a wise investment: “This is an outreach, a way to help the bar cultivate new leaders—we are looking for them.” Lee thinks that while the lessons learned will be beneficial to the attendees, “In the long run, it will be beneficial to the association and to our future.”

Participants are assigned a board member as mentor and must attend one meeting each of the House of Delegates, the Board of Governors, the Executive Committee, the Young Lawyers Section, the Budget Committee, the Access to Justice Committee, and one committee of their choosing.

The only “tuition” is a continued commitment required of its graduates—of whom there were six the first year and five in the second group—to serve the association through its committees, boards, and sections in the year following graduation. “It is very easy for someone to go through the program and then say, ‘I’ll come back to it,’” Lee notes. “It’s better to build on the experience you’ve had and use what you’ve learned while it’s still fresh in your mind.”

The Indianapolis Bar Association, whose program aims to develop members as community leaders as well as bar leaders, formulated its nine-month Bar Leader Series very similarly to that of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and the United Way, says Executive Director Julie Armstrong. “The movers and shakers would gravitate to their programs and we would then reap the benefit of having graduates of those programs in our bar leadership, but they had no real knowledge of some of the hidden aspects of the legal issues within our community,” she explains.

After the two-day retreat, a series of monthly seminars—each one lasting five hours, including lunch—teaches young attorneys about leadership skills; appellate courts; trial courts; city, county, and state government; working with the business community; negotiating skills; pro bono; and public safety. The sessions are led by local and state leaders, including representatives from the mayor’s office and a number of judges.

Nineteen hours of continuing legal education credit are built into the program, which helps make it more attractive to the small and solo practitioner who must take time away from the office to attend, as well as firms permitting their younger attorneys to participate. The program can accommodate up to 25 participants.

A big commitment

There is a great investment that goes into each leadership academy—in terms of staff and volunteer time, as well as money. John Norwine, executive director of the Cincinnati Bar Association, estimates that between 900 and 1,200 staff hours were expended during the planning stages of Cincinnati’s CALL program; the annual financial expenditure for the program is more than $30,000, of which more than half is spent on the two-day retreat.

For many associations that have developed such programs, the outlay of staff and volunteer time eventually levels off as the program gets under way and steering committees meet less frequently. After those elements reach a plateau, the major commitment left is the monetary one. Some budgets are built into the general fund, while others, like the Mecklenburg bar’s, are underwritten by bar foundations.

Many associations that charge tuition for their leadership programs offer scholarships to those who could not otherwise participate. Tony Lathrop, founder of Mecklenburg’s Bar Leadership Institute, was concerned that the $1,000 tuition fee would make participation impossible for some, especially those in legal services and public service jobs. “It is very important to have people from all segments of the bar participate,” he believes, and to that end, a portion of the program’s $30,000 annual budget is earmarked for financial aid.

The Cincinnati bar, among others, does likewise. At the request of the program’s second graduating class, the Cincinnati Bar Foundation established an alumni fund providing financial assistance to a small number of attendees who can’t afford the program’s tuition of $1,100.

Diversity in different forms

Selection criteria and requirements for participants vary among the programs, but all require that candidates demonstrate a willingness to use their newfound knowledge and talent to further the profession.

Some leadership programs select their participants through a nomination process; others advertise their programs to their full membership through their traditional and electronic publications, letters to firm leaders, and other means, and require those interested to submit an application that is then considered by a selection committee. The LSBA has tried both. The second class of Leadership LSBA is composed of attorneys identified by the LSBA board of governors, with an eye toward diversity in terms of race, gender, practice area, geographic locale, and law school. Through this outreach, Lee hopes to identify future leaders who will reflect the diversity of the association’s membership.

“The numbers of minority lawyers are increasing, though minority activity within our association has not increased at that same level,” he notes, adding that he hopes being tapped for Leadership LSBA will serve to increase the involvement of lawyers of color in the association’s leadership.

At the Maryland State Bar Association, racial and ethnic diversity was not reflected in the leadership or even the membership when the MSBA Leadership Academy began in 1996, according to Judge Toni Clarke, chair of the Academy, who says she has seen a change since the program began. “For years I saw the same five to 10 people at the bar’s programs that looked like me,” she says. “That was not a reflection of the makeup of the bar.

“As a result of the program, we’re seeing more Asian, Black, and Hispanic members joining the association and taking leadership roles. Through the program, we sent a message that we are serious about achieving diversity.”

Leadership Academy participants generally meet bimonthly over the course of a year. Each meeting lasts two or three hours; topics covered include the administration of the bar; communications; professionalism; and pro bono. They also attend meetings of the Board of Governors. Most of the teaching is done by bar leaders and staff, with some additional assistance from judges and others.

Also important, Lathrop says, is to encourage participants to break down other types of barriers between them. “Our bar is getting bigger in number and people are getting more specialized in what they do and less and less connected with their brethren in the bar,” he explains. Because the mix of participants spans firms large and small; government, corporate, and private; urban, suburban, and rural; and litigators and nonlitigators, he says, each participant has a chance to overcome preconceptions about different types of lawyers and develop a greater knowledge base from which to grow as a leader.

The structure of the Mecklenburg program allows plenty of time for interaction. After a kickoff Friday night dinner, the up-to-20 participants meet again on Saturday and travel to an inn for a retreat that wraps up around noon on Sunday. Over the course of four months, they then attend five meetings, each one three hours long, and each on a different topic, such as ethics and integrity, the justice system, and leadership in the community. These discussion sessions are led by special guests, including civic leaders, law professors, and local judges. A graduation ceremony caps the program.

“We want to develop a cadre of leaders—give them training in ethical and civil conduct, as well as exposure to a diverse group of comrades,” Lathrop notes. “This growth is important to the individual as well as to the profession and the community.”

Speeding the climb

Most leadership programs are geared toward younger lawyers. Neumark’s idea was to reach these lawyers before they reach the point—at about five years in practice—where they are familiar with the profession and have significant experience under their belt. “This program gives them a framework for having meaningful discussions about issues facing lawyers while still giving them sufficient time to use the principles and lessons learned,” he says.

Typically, it takes five to eight years for a volunteer to ascend to the top ranks of bar leadership once he or she starts participating actively in the bar, Burdick says, noting that this is a disincentive for some members. Her bar’s leadership program has helped bring that time frame down to three to five years, she says, while also broadening the pool of people committed to the association.

As these programs help create a bond between the association and its graduates, and among the diverse participants who may ultimately guide the bar’s future, many are finding that a community of leaders within the bar can be a powerful, positive force.

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