Smart, nimble, and multitalented, today’s small bar exec is anything but small-time

Volume 34 Number 3

By

Meet the executive directors at today’s small bar associations.

They fix cranky copy machines, answer phones, scramble for volunteers, point new lawyers to the right court-room, and master a Web site or two.

They also develop important CLE programs, manage tight budgets, lead vital public outreach efforts, and help lay out the future for the bar members who rely on them for their insight, organizing skills, and often institutional knowledge of lawyers and their communities.

Some have law degrees; others had never heard of bar associations before running one; most know the names of virtually every attorney in town.

“I have yet to have a year when it was the same as the year before,” says Evelyn Sullivan, executive director of the 743-member Lancaster (Pa.) Bar Association since 1988. “You do a little bit of everything.”

For many executive directors of smaller bars, that jack-of-all-trades mentality guides their work, much as it has for many years. But as times have changed, so have the demands on these execs. Like many association leaders, they are faced with the increasing challenges of providing relevant and valuable services and programs for members amid an environment of economic turmoil and competition for time and resources.

Despite those obstacles, many small-bar execs say their associations are doing quite well, thriving on the famili-arity of community that brings people together in tougher times. And while many executive directors still run their bars on informal handshake deals, and multitasking and thriftiness are still valued traits, technology, communica-tions, and idea sharing are playing greater roles in how small bars operate now, and likely will in the future.

If there is one common thread among associations of any size today, says Linda Shinn, it is “the challenge of the value proposition: What is the return on my dues revenue?” Shinn is a principal at Consensus Management Group, which specializes in strategic consulting, planning, and executive searches for associations, including bar groups.

Members of professional associations such as bars are faced with many choices when they consider retaining or expanding their memberships, Shinn says. That often means that they consistently look for organizations that can provide a measurable return on their dues. The demands of work and family, combined most recently with the eco-nomic downturn, she adds, have made professionals even more acutely aware of those choices—and have made as-sociation execs more concerned about stagnant or shrinking revenue.

One key advantage for smaller bars? Some of the skills required to weather the current economy are ones execs at smaller bars have been honing all along. “Small associations always need to do more with less,” Shinn says. “If you’re the executive director, you’re often the back-office support, the meeting planner, the webmaster, the human resources office. You’re constantly multitasking.”

 

If you can’t do it all, who does it?

Noreen Nardi, executive director of the 870-member Hampden County (Mass.) Bar Association, was the bar’s ex-ecutive assistant for several years before taking the helm in 2007. Two part-time assistants provide some administra-tive help, but many other tasks are left to her.

“I manage the Web site. I manage the Facebook page. When we put together a survey and ask the members ques-tions, that’s me,” she says. “We do as much as we can in-house.”

At the 840-member Springfield (Mo.) Metropolitan Bar Association, Executive Director Crista Hogan calls on a retired volunteer attorney who answers phones and assists in other work one day a week. Additionally, the bar usu-ally has one or two prelaw students from nearby schools who are paid minimum wage to handle similar duties. Pitching the bar as a great place for an internship was easy, she notes.

“I told them, ‘You’ll learn a lot more here. You’ll answer the phones and handle calls on our [lawyer] referral lines. You’ll be exposed to many working attorneys,’ ” she says. “It’s a lot better than running for coffee.”

When Dena Woelfling, the part-time executive director of the 130-member Lebanon County (Pa.) Bar Associa-tion, was looking for help in developing the bar’s Web site, she found a local college student who put the site to-gether in exchange for a stipend.

Woelfling’s current lament is that the student left several months ago, and she has been unable to find a replace-ment to update the site. “I need to get that up and running,” she says. “There is no extra in the budget.”

Shinn, herself a former director of a small association, agrees that managing such small organizations requires some special skills. “You want somebody who has experience like having six kids under the age of 10. You’ve got to juggle. You’ve got to have great people skills,” she says. “Obviously, it’s not for everybody.”

 

Tough choices eased by communication

When Sullivan talks about what makes a relationship click between a small bar’s executive director and its mem-bers, the discussion usually comes back to one word: communication.

“The executive director must communicate with the board. It’s a matter of building trust,” she says. “[The board] needs to understand the questions we get from the members.”

A common problem, Sullivan and others say, is that busy or nonparticipating bar members are often not aware of what the executive director or other bar staff members do to further the mission of the bar.

“One of the most frustrating things for me is that I need to get out the word that I’m here,” Woelfling says. “Three years later, there are still several people here who don’t know what I do.”

What Woelfling has learned—and what other bar leaders also say is important—is that the executive director needs to have strong lines of communication not just with the bar’s executive board, but also with the chairs of key bar committees. “I rely on them to tell me what’s happening with members,” she says. “I definitely need their help.”

Such regular dialogue is important to any association’s growth and keeps the executive director and his or her board members focused on the same goals, Shinn believes. “You need to have those conversations,” she says. “You need to sit down with your leaders and say, ‘What’s on your plate?’ ”

Good communication is also important when executive directors need more people, money, and other resources to get things done. When Joyce Wood, executive director of the 718-member Snohomish County (Wash.) Bar Asso-ciation, wanted to hire a new half-time employee to handle additional tasks, she presented a reluctant board of direc-tors with a thorough five-year plan that illustrated the need for help.

“When they saw that, they realized that the ‘gamble’ they were taking seemed a lot more doable,” she says. That half-time position, she says, later evolved into a full-time slot.

Nardi agrees that research and information sharing is key in getting board members to agree to budget and/or staffing increases. “Assemble your stats and show them there’s a reason for increasing hours,” she says.

Also part of that effort, for any small-bar exec, she adds, is a careful review of the bar’s often-limited resources and the need to prioritize, knowing that not all requests for bigger budgets and more staffing will be met—or should be made in the first place.

When Nardi became executive director, the Hampden County bar had been holding monthly evening socials that attracted small crowds. Now, the bar holds such events quarterly, attracting more members and allowing resources to be used in other places.

Crista Hogan says one of her best accomplishments in eight years as executive director at the Springfield metro-politan bar was the establishment of an annual board of directors retreat, which encouraged Hogan and the board to develop a short list of achievable goals for the year ahead.

“I used to always feel like I was missing something, there were so many things going on,” she says. “Now, I’ve found it helpful to focus on a few things that can get done.”

 

Is a bad economy good for small bars?

A 2009 survey of more than 300 midsize to large professional associations across the country conducted by consult-ing firm McKinley Marketing found that 82 percent of those surveyed expected negative impacts from the economy. But the talk among several smaller bars is that membership numbers at many are increasing. The chief reason, they say, is likely what has them living and working where they do: a strong sense of community.

Couple that with the often pressing need to increase marketing and networking opportunities to drum up business in a soft economy, and the reasons for growth become more apparent, bar execs and observers say.

“I believe that my members may be more active in finding business and networking at the bar,” Hogan says. “The things we’re doing and providing here are of value to the members.”

The Hampden County bar has responded to economic conditions by offering training on the basics of certain ar-eas of law for members who specialize in other areas, giving them a broader base to find business. The bar’s loca-tion in the county courts building also provides members an extra level of support, giving them a location to do work while waiting for business in the courts, Nardi says.

The Snohomish County bar offers a similar haven at the county courts building there. Members have been known to call on bar staff to send out faxes, pick up phone calls, and provide other administrative help that might not be available from bigger associations. “It’s a huge benefit to their practice to get that service or to get that question an-swered,” Wood says. “It’s like a satellite office for them.”

While the economy might be helping small bars, some of the growth they are seeing has actually been occurring over the last several years, execs say, leaving them to scramble to provide a host of services, events, and benefits for members.

The Snohomish County bar, for example, has seen membership grow from about 125 to more than 700 in the 15 years that Wood has been executive director. Membership has jumped 30 percent in the eight years that Hogan has led the Springfield metropolitan bar.

One growth area, many execs say, is CLE offerings. Many bars these days are finding it a challenge to go head to head with the many for-profit providers that have come into play, but smaller bars are finding success by focusing on their best asset—the local, personal touch. When Wood started, the Snohomish County bar offered one large CLE event a year. Now, the bar provides at least one short CLE offering a month, along with several other longer, targeted offerings.

Hogan, too, finds CLE to be a particular strength for her bar. “We have a tremendous resource in the connection and mutual respect of our members,” she says. “So we try to capitalize on what we can offer uniquely, which is lo-cal, in-person seminars, where some of the best and brightest in our community share their time and talent with their colleagues.”

 

Loving the job— without burning out

The recent growth of many smaller bars, along with increasing member demands for relevant value, can create some unique opportunities—and challenges—for executive directors, many say.

When Wood became executive director, it was a three-quarters time position that she quickly turned into a full-time position—and beyond—with little direction from bar leaders. And that was part of the attraction to her, and why she left her job as a full-time administrative assistant at a larger business.

“The board didn’t have a plan or a solid direction for where they were going then,” she says. “It was something that I could take charge of, and I could really make it into something great.”

Even once things were more organized, board members gave her a relatively free rein in shaping the association, she notes. The budgets she submitted for approval were rarely altered, she says, and “there were some board mem-bers who didn’t understand that I was the employee and they were the boss.”

As an attorney who once practiced in Springfield—but wasn’t active in the century-old bar at the time—Hogan saw some opportunities to broaden the bar’s reach and stature in the community when she became executive direc-tor. “It’s kind of a prestigious position here, as our bar has become more relevant,” she says.

Bud Clark, a longtime attorney in Baltimore County, Md., and the current president of the Baltimore County Bar Association, has seen tremendous growth in his bar over the last few years. Membership has doubled from 700 to 1,400 over the last decade, transforming it from a smaller bar to one that is larger yet still retains a sense of smaller community, he says.

With 26 active committees, an annual strategic planning session, a rotating board of directors, a legal referral ser-vice that provided 4,700 placements in 2008, plenty of CLE offerings, fundraisers, and other social activities, Clark concedes that the bar is “very dependent” on its executive director, Doris Barnes. And that concerns him.

“We’re trying to find that balance between a paid staff and the work of volunteer attorneys,” he says. “At some point, at some level, I’m worried about burning her out.”

That is a consistent fear among many smaller associations, their executive directors, and their often limited staff, Shinn says. “Burnout is a concern,” she says. “A common complaint [among executive directors at smaller associa-tions] is, ‘[Members] just don’t understand what I do. Don’t they see the time I put in?’ ”

That’s why Shinn and others say that all executive directors of any size organization need a contract with their association that clearly spells out duties, expectations, and compensation. She finds it ironic that many small bar associations don’t have these legal documents in place.

Evelyn Sullivan advocates such contracts—yet she hasn’t had one for 20 years and will likely never have one. Asking for one now, she believes, “would say to my board, ‘I don’t trust you, and you don’t appreciate me.’ ”

She, like many other bar execs, says the trust formed between a bar executive and the board—along with per-formance reviews from board members—can negate the need for a contract. But it still sometimes presents some awkward moments, particularly for longtime EDs with deep knowledge of their associations that usually predates some board members.

“I haven’t had a raise in four years, so compensation for the executive director is something I’ll be bringing up,” says Wood, adding that she hopes it will raise the board’s awareness mostly for those who will succeed her.

 

A hometown spirit

As small-bar executive directors and their associations move forward, most know that the pressures of managing such an association in today’s challenging economic and professional environment will probably not fade. Woelfling discovered this recently when she needed to apply for a government grant to purchase a laptop computer and projec-tor that will allow Lebanon County bar members to access live feeds of CLE events at the bar.

Shinn believes that like-minded associations in the same community will need to turn more toward each other to share in services and expenses that can keep all such groups running. Embracing technology and regularly main-taining a future management plan are also key to survival, she adds.

Most also agree that while it is vexing at times, the small-town nature and community-minded spirit of smaller bars and their members will be the most compelling feature that attracts and keeps members involved.

“I think that small bars have a real opportunity,” Hogan says, “because in challenging economic times, individu-als tend to want to associate more closely to like-minded individuals and entities.”

And the feeling among small-bar execs is often mutual.

Hogan fondly recalls when the Springfield metropolitan bar awarded her $100 for winning a writing contest as a high school senior nearly 30 years ago. It helped solidify her feeling that she would one day, like others in her fam-ily, pursue a law career in her hometown.

“I try to nurture lawyers and the profession by providing services and education,” she says. “I feel uniquely able to make positive changes for the community.”

She’s also decided that after three decades, it’s finally time to raise that $100 award.

 

An event on the grow: The NABE Small Bar Conference

 

RJD

 

 

When it was first launched in 2005, the National Association of Bar Executives Small Bar Conference in Baltimore attracted a handful of executive directors and other staff. Four years later in Philadelphia, execs from 40 to 45 asso-ciations turned out for what is fast becoming a must-attend session for leaders of bars small and not so small.

“We wanted to present an alternative to the NABE conferences for those bars who didn’t have the time or the re-sources to spare,” says Yvonne McGhee, who is executive director of the Fairfax (Va.) Bar Association and was chair for the three most recent Small Bar Conferences. “It concentrates on the nuts and bolts.” Part of that concentra-tion, she notes, is to offer a lot of programming in a quick day and a half.

The 2009 conference, in June, featured the usual hallmarks of the event: a $99 registration fee, a packed meeting schedule, and a location in a city served by discount air carrier Southwest Airlines.

Speakers and sessions are aimed at helping bars with fewer than 1,000 members and/or a budget of less than $300,000, but the increasing presence of attendees from larger bars shows how the conference can provide informa-tion and help for just about any bar, McGhee says. Even execs from the State Bar of California—by far, the coun-try’s largest state bar—attended in 2008 and found it worthwhile, she notes.

“I love going. I always bring back new ideas,” says Dena Woelfling, executive director of the Lebanon County (Pa.) Bar Association.

Woelfling typifies the challenges many smaller bars face; she applied for and received a $500 scholarship from the Pennsylvania Bar Fund to cover her cost of attendance.

She and other leaders of small bars say they not only appreciate hearing from experts in finance, technology, and association management, but they also learn from each other.

Plans for the 2010 conference are in the works. Check the NABE Web site at www.nabenet.org for details soon.

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