Michelle A. Behnke is chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services.
Imagine you’re a new bar president, and you’ve just been given your first writing assignment. The blank page stares back at you. What do you say to the “troops”? How do you talk about important issues such as judicial independence, civility, or professionalism in a way that will seem new or compelling? How do you even find time to write an article that your members will read?
Likewise, you will be asked to comment on issues “on behalf of the bar association.” How do you do that on an issue that divides your members? And how do you speak to an issue on which your association has not taken an official position? Regardless, you are the spokesperson. Are you always the spokesperson? Can you just offer your personal opinion?
Communicating with your members and on behalf of your members is, without a doubt, the most important task during your term. Effective communication allows you to share your vision with members. It allows you to join in a public discussion or debate. It allows you to persuade the legislature, courts, or the public. If you don’t have a background in journalism or you were not a television news anchor in a prior life, this part of the job may seem overwhelming.
Many executive directors or communication directors will tell you that the best president’s pages are the ones actually written by the elected president. Sure, some president’s pages are ghostwritten, but remember, you were elected because you have something to say. Your executive director can be a sounding board or an editor as you craft the message, but the words should be your own. Whether you write all the columns ahead of time or speak to current issues, keep in mind that your purpose is to share your ideas and see where that takes the members and the association. If you don’t have all the answers, that’s all right. Let your members know that you welcome their input and thoughts. If you have a strong viewpoint or opinion that you want to voice, that’s all right, too. Just be sure that members also know there is still room for dialogue and discussion.
When to speak and how to speak on behalf of the association can be fraught with issues. During my term as president of the State Bar of Wisconsin, I often worried that if I spoke out on a particular issue, it would stifle discussion. Likewise, I worried that if I did not speak to an issue, I was not leading. Evaluating when and how to be an effective spokesperson for the association takes some thought, and knowing when to hold your tongue can be as important as knowing what to say. Some of the best advice I ever received was, “Just remember, you’re never not the president.” Once you get past the double negative, you’ll find this to be valuable advice. Even when you think you are just sharing your personal opinion or speaking “off the record,” you will be seen as and perceived as the president of the association. Keep that in mind as you craft any response.
Does all of this sound tough? It often is. But there is no need to walk this gauntlet alone. Be sure that you take inventory of the resources available to you, both at the ABA and within your own association. Consider how the executive director, past presidents, section leaders, and other members play into the communication equation. Sometimes the most effective communication does not involve the president. Think of how you can involve others and share the communication spotlight. It may lift the burden from your shoulders and foster development of future leaders.
The Division for Bar Services, the ABA entity focused on connecting leaders and resources, has a wealth of information—everything from communication workshops at the Bar Leadership Institute to a collection of president’s pages that you can review and, most important, draw from for your own purposes. There are many important resources to help you hone your communication skills and increase the effectiveness of your communication with your members and your other constituencies. Whatever the communication issue, know that the ABA Division for Bar Services has resources available for you—and many of them are only a mouse click away.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
If you need help with communications—or any other aspect of bar leadership—be sure to visit the ABA Division for Bar Services at www.abanet.org/barserv/home.html. While you’re there, check out the Bar Leadership Institute home page, at www.abanet.org/barserv/bli.html. You’ll find handouts from past BLI sessions, which can be a great refresher course anytime you get stuck.
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