What have you done for me lately? Bars focus on membership

Volume 28 Number 6

By

If Nancy Gallego runs into an attorney interested in joining the El Paso (Texas) Bar Association, she can pretty much predict what she’ll be asked.

“The first thing that any potential member wants to know is, ‘What is the benefit to me for joining your organization?’ So, I have to be a salesman.

“I’m a salesman every single day,” Gallego says. “Recruiting and retaining members is probably the No. 1 job of any executive director.”

It is a job that is probably more challenging every day, as bar associations—like many volunteer-driven, nonprofit associations—struggle to get and keep members.

No longer is it an automatic for many time-starved lawyers to join their local, regional, or state bar associations. Younger attorneys and solo practitioners in particular are questioning the value of a bar membership more and more. Even lawyers who have their dues paid by their firms or who practice in states that mandate bar membership are not always eager to embrace an association’s programs and activities.

And world events can play a role, too. A survey conducted last year by the American Society of Association Executives found that 34 percent of ASAE members saw membership decline in the 18 months after the September 11 terrorist attacks, while another 35 saw no changes and 31 percent saw increases.

Changing demographics and changing member demands are prompting many bar associations to change as well. While car rental and office supply discounts might be a given in a member benefit package, they’re certainly not a draw, many leaders say. Increasingly, they say, members want things they can only find at a bar association. Leading the way are initiatives involving technology, networking, legislative lobbying, and focused events and CLE offerings.

For some associations, moving in this direction is paying off with better recruitment and retention numbers. For other associations, the initiatives provide opportunities to learn or to adapt programs and ideas for themselves.

A whole-bar effort

After enduring the economic and social aftershocks of September 11, many nonprofit associations are just now starting to come out of the doldrums, says Chris Vest, a spokesman for the ASAE. But many have learned from the experience.

“I think associations had to be—and still have to be—cognizant of competing interests for their members,” he says. “Associations now are extremely focused on retaining their members and engaging their volunteers more.”

How focused is Barry Simpson and his staff at the Pennsylvania Bar Association?

“We have a membership campaign that begins every morning at 8 o’clock,” says Simpson, the bar’s executive director. “Every day we come in, membership recruitment and retention is on our plate.”

Membership at the 109-year-old voluntary bar hit an all-time high of 29,064 members earlier this year for a variety of reasons, Simpson says. A major factor, he notes, is the presence of a full-time marketing director and a full-time member services coordinator.

Still, Simpson and his staff are not resting. The bar currently has three membership marketing campaigns now in the planning stages that will be rolled out over the next 18 months. Underlying all the campaigns, he says, is the bar’s role as a service provider: “We are a service organization. We are here to serve the members. If we serve the members, we’ll retain them.”

At the Columbus Bar Association, the membership team consists of leaders of six different departments—from the controller to the executive director—who meet regularly to develop activity plans, says Emily Eastin, who leads the team as director of communications. “Membership has to be very integrated into the entire association,” she says. “The receptionist is also on the team. She hears things firsthand. We have to find out what it is members want.”

The reason to send the check

Focus might be the best word to describe what members and potential members want, many bar executives say. Surveys done by the Pennsylvania bar indicated that although members expected perks like car rental and purchase discounts, those were not what they wanted as a real benefit. They expected the bar to provide other benefits that “make their practice easier and more economical,” Simpson says.

At one of the nation’s largest voluntary bars, the 72,000-member New York State Bar Association, the approach to member benefits began changing two years ago after discussions with members. “They told us, ‘Just make the message as clear and as straightforward as possible,’ ” says Richard Martin, senior director of marketing and information services for the bar.

For Abbe Shaine, executive director of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the message from members was clear as well. “People are looking for a reason to send us a check,” she says. “There are competing demands on their time.”

Adds Simpson, “We have to give [members] a reason to belong to our association, to give them things that they can’t find anywhere else.”

For the PBA, one of those reasons—one that is key for many bars not affected by Keller laws—was legislative lobbying. With a full-time presence in the state capital of Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania bar is the leading lobby voice for all of the state’s lawyers, Simpson says. That voice, he notes, has helped quell a movement to slap a sales tax on legal services, in addition to speaking out against a move by physicians to cap malpractice awards.

The Massachusetts and New York state bars have also been more aggressive in campaigning for and against issues affecting lawyers in their states, but the NYSBA got a lesson in focus, Martin says, when it got feedback from members regarding the bar’s prominent campaign to get higher fees for state-assigned lawyers in indigent cases. “It didn’t matter to a majority of them,” Martin says. “It had no impact.”

The tough economic times have also been a boon, of sorts, for bar associations that have emphasized networking and job opportunities. A résumé drop before an association conference has gotten positive feedback from Massachusetts bar members, Shaine says, while a program called “300 Ways to Use Your Law Degree” drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 members.

The 9,500-member Boston Bar Association has strengthened its networking opportunities in recent years by encouraging its various sections and committees to have more meetings, says Rich Page, director of professional development and membership. More than 450 such meetings were held last year—a record, he says. Has that approach worked, given the much-publicized time crunch lawyers and others face? “During this latest economic downturn, we’ve seen a lot of packed meeting rooms,” Page notes.

Technology as benefit and tool

Perhaps one of the biggest stimulants of success for many bar associations in providing a unique benefit for members is in the area of technology. Among the most popular technological products that has been credited for membership growth by bar executives has been the Casemaker online law library. In May, the Utah State Bar voted to become the 16th member of a consortium of state bars that offer Casemaker to their members.

“Casemaker is the best membership benefit I have ever seen any association—bar or otherwise—provide,” Denny Ramey, executive director of the Ohio State Bar Association (which created Casemaker), said in announcing another recent addition, the State Bar of Georgia. “In my opinion, Casemaker is exactly the kind of thing a bar should do for its members.”

One of the most appealing elements of Casemaker is its ability to put online legal research in the hands of solo and small practitioners cheaply and easily, says Kevin Ryan, director of education and communication for the Vermont Bar Association. That’s especially important in a state full of such practitioners, as Vermont.

The Vermont bar raised its annual dues by $5 to help pay for Casemaker; it’s been a winning proposition for the bar. About 100 new members were added in the first full year with Casemaker, he says.

At the Massachusetts bar, Casemaker became the cornerstone of an entire technology-driven benefit package for members known as the Legal Tech Tool Box. In addition to Casemaker, the program provides technical advice and products for members. The bar has also joined with other members of the New England Bar Association, which pays a technology consultant to continually test potential products for members.

“It’s very hard to stay up with technology, so this is an area where we can be helpful to members,” Shaine says. “Technology is where it’s at. Anything we can do to support the practice of smaller attorneys and help them with technology, we’ll do.”

While Casemaker is among the most popular online research tools, other bars, including Pennsylvania, have enjoyed success with other programs such as InSite by Lexis.

Many organizations are successfully taking advantage of tech tools not only to provide benefits directly to members, but to learn more about them as a way to boost membership.
Listservs, bulletin boards, meeting minutes, online CLE, and e-mailed newsletters are becoming the norm for many associations as they look to compete for members’ time.

“Within 12 minutes, we can get a message out to everyone we have an e-mail address for—and we have more than 17,000 e-mail addresses,” says Bill Weber, director of communications for the Massachusetts bar.

At the Missouri Bar, the online newsletter known as Esq. is e-mailed every Friday afternoon and has become a popular read for members, says Linda Oligschlaeger, director of membership services for the 27,000-member mandatory bar. “They’re busy people, and this is a great vehicle to carry important information,” she says. “It’s been wildly successful.”

One way to find out what members want is to review an association’s databases to gather information ranging from practice interests to committee preferences. In Columbus, Eastin works closely with the IT department to scour those databases for information.

Perhaps the easiest way to find out what members want is to ask them, and there are a variety of ways to do that, including traditional surveys and focus groups, as well as online surveys via providers such as Survey Monkey and Zoomerang.

The Pennsylvania bar recently conducted a survey of 1,500 renewing dues-paying members to get better ideas about why they returned. “We’re out there looking for the next great product that makes us indispensable,” Simpson says.

What do tomorrow’s members want?

Many bars have shifted away from thinking of members as a homogeneous group, instead considering what might draw different types of members. The NYSBA developed six different renewal letters targeted at different segments of its membership. The result has been increased and earlier renewals among all the targeted groups, Martin says.

The ability to find “the next great product” and to deliver for members in the future—particularly younger members—will remain important for bar executives. “Like most bars, we’re still working on finding the right combination to make ourselves attractive to the next generation,” Abbe Shaine says. “Is what we do relevant to them? What can we do to bring it to them?”

Jay Jamrog, executive director of research at the Human Resource Institute at the University of Tampa (Fla.) agrees that bar associations have plenty of work to do to reach today’s youngest generation of attorneys. Unlike previous generations, they are often not likely to blindly join an organization such as a bar association just for the sake of joining.

“Associations really need to have ‘value-added’ benefits for their [newer] members,” he says. “They really want to know, ‘What am I going to get out of this?’ ”

And while many in today’s youngest generation see great value in networking—mostly due to job insecurity—Jamrog also senses “a lot of frustration with these ‘good-old-boy’ networks,” that they perceive as the way bar members traditionally ascend to leadership.

Bruce Butterfield, president of association consulting firm The Forbes Group, Fairfax, Va., agrees with this assessment. Members of Generation X, the 46 million Americans born between 1965 and 1981, have little patience for the traditional ladder to leadership, and instead “want a seat at the table now.”

In Missouri, the bar is generating interest among younger members through its Leadership Academy. The three-year-old program is a boot camp of sorts for about 20 newer members a year, exposing them to the inner workings of bar leadership activities for a full year, Oligschlaeger says. That is then followed by significant committee appointments (for more information about leadership academies, see “Growth potential: Training helps bars broaden the circle of leadership,” March-April 2004, page 10).

One of the brightest success stories for attracting younger members is in Indianapolis, where the Indianapolis Bar Association has focused its efforts on law school students through reduced dues and involvement in more than a dozen different activities and bar review courses, says Julie Armstrong, the bar’s executive director.

Three years ago, the bar had 91 law student members. Today, that number stands at 817. And what makes that even more impressive, Armstrong says, is that 98 percent of the students who had memberships in law school have continued with their association membership after graduation. Thanks in part to the infusion of younger members, overall IBA membership has grown from 2,900 in 1995 to 4,500 today.

“You can’t wait. You have to start doing this now,” Armstrong says of the effort to reach young lawyers. “This is going to be the future generation of leaders, and you’d better get them now.”

Butterfield thinks bars that are keying in on meaningful involvement as a way to attract younger members are on the right track. Just as they are annoyed by the traditional ladder to leadership, Gen Xers are also frustrated by the traditional bar structure of committees, sections, and the like, Butterfield said, speaking at this year’s ABA Bar Leadership Institute. Instead, he explained, they prefer a flexible system that allows them to work on a specific issue they care about, rather than asking them to join a committee. Butterfield predicted that in coming years, as Gen X members are joined by some of the 80 million Millenials (born between 1982 and 2002) coming along behind them, there may well be “increasing pressure” for bars to adjust their structure to allow such flexibility.

Indeed, he added, younger members might even question the very definition of membership. Butterfield wouldn’t be surprised if today’s and tomorrow’s members, who are intently focused on return on investment, will take “What have you done for me lately?” a step further. Rather than signing on for a full year, Butterfield said, they might ask, “ ‘Could I belong for a week? Could I belong for a day?’ ”

A shared journey

What may ultimately help bar associations continue to weather the changing tides of demographics, economics, and generational evolution, many executives say, is the steady sharing of information. Partnerships such as the Casemaker consortium, regional groups such as the New England Bar Association, and national groups such as NABE allow bars to pool information and to share what works and what doesn’t.

“[NABE] is a great place to go,” Abbe Shaine says. “Other people are always trying things, and we all learn from each other.”

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