Your president’s page—and how your bar staff can help

Volume 34 Number 4

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Whatever the size of your bar, chances are, as bar president you’ll be asked to write a president’s page. Or six. Or 10, or 12. It is nearly universal to face this task with at least a small amount of trepidation. After all, that’s a lot of blank pages, and you want to make each one count.

Fortunately, help is here—and at your bar as well. Bar Leader recently spoke with several members of the Na-tional Association of Bar Executives Communications Section, and all said they are ready and willing to brainstorm with their leaders, provide a little or a lot of guidance, and help them make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime oppor-tunity. Chances are, the staff at your bar feel the same way.

Nuts and bolts such as the exact procedure for writing and editing, word count, and deadlines vary greatly from one bar to the next—except, of course, that all we spoke with said to please do your best to adhere to deadlines and to absolutely let them know well in advance if you think you’ll need an extension or won’t be able to write a particu-lar column at all.

All indicated that the executive director, communications director, or both, discuss these specifics with the presi-dent throughout the year and in a meeting or phone conversation at some point before he or she takes office. If this has not happened and you’re feeling a bit concerned, don’t be afraid to call or e-mail your executive director. In this article, we’ll focus more on how to write columns that attract readers and help you get your message across.

 

Get readers’ attention

First of all, if you’re feeling anxious because you think you must have a pile of president’s pages written in advance and ready to go—don’t. Your own executive director or communications director’s preferences might vary, of course, but several we spoke with say this idea is neither practical for the writer nor beneficial for the bar. One says she likes to have one column ready in advance in case of catastrophe, but none expect—or even wish for—a year’s worth.

“I think good president’s columns respond to the issues of the day, issues confronting the bar, key concerns of the president her- or himself, or at the very least, topics of concern to members,” says Kevin Ryan, director of education and communication at the Vermont Bar Association. This approach does mean he has to remind the president of impending deadlines, Ryan says, but “it tends to produce a fresher column, and one that attracts readers.”

What else attracts readers? Experts we spoke with consistently mentioned a personal touch, but one that is not self-focused to the point of excluding others. It’s OK to write, for example, that your house was a mess or the garage door was broken, says Dan Cirucci, formerly associate executive director at the Philadelphia Bar Association and currently a lecturer in corporate communications at Penn State University. The key, he adds, is to then make some larger point that readers can connect with. In this case, maybe you’re talking about your household chaos in the con-text of a column about how all lawyers are busy and have moments like this.

Frederick Massie, communications director at the Rhode Island Bar Association, agrees and summarizes the per-sonal approach this way: “Here’s my experience, and here’s how it fits in with what it means to be a lawyer.”

Both Massie and Cirucci caution against using too many first-person pronouns—I, me, my, mine. If your column has too many of those, they explain, that’s a good indication that you need to broaden your perspective and invite readers in a bit more.

A compelling headline and a good lead (the first paragraph or two) are also very important, Cirucci says. “If you don’t have an interesting headline, and if the column isn’t on an interesting topic, no one’s going to read it,” he says.

A distinctive structure can also catch readers’ interest, Massie notes. You might have learned in a writing class about the “inverted pyramid” for news writing, in which the most important information, the point you want to make sure the reader gets, comes first. But the current president of the Rhode Island bar, Victoria Almeida, writes compel-ling columns using the opposite structure—opening with specific detail about her own situation and then revealing to readers how this information applies to them.

That’s not his style, Massie notes, but the important thing is that it’s a style that works well for Almeida: Her col-umns have earned acclaim not only within the bar but at the national level as well. For an example, see “Thanksgiv-ing Without Grapes,” www.ribar.com/aboutus/president. asp?id=470, which appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of the Rhode Island Bar Journal and was then reprinted by Metropolitan Corporate Counsel, a national publication with a circulation of more than 22,000.

Your columns, too, might reach an audience beyond what you might imagine. A particularly good one, Cirucci says, might be spun off to become an op-ed piece for your local newspaper—or perhaps an article for Bar Leader.

If you do have an opportunity to recraft a column to make it an op-ed piece, or to reverse the flow and write an op-ed that becomes a bar column, bear in mind that the different types of publications have different needs, Wise adds. For example, 800 words is fine for New Hampshire’s Bar News newspaper, but general circulation papers typically prefer that op-eds be about 600 words long, or shorter. That means a column replete with, say, historical allusions, might require “aggressive editing” in order to get it into the paper. If your bar’s ED or communications staff person does such an edit, Wise says, try to remember that he or she is doing you a favor; if you send in an op-ed that’s too long, he explains, the paper will edit it—and will likely be less delicate than your bar staff would.

 

What should you write about?

While all we spoke with said they were happy to suggest topics for leaders who feel stuck, chances are, you will be given mostly free rein to choose your subjects. So … what do you want to write about?

A strong inaugural speech can give you a good head start in choosing topics, Cirucci says. If you identified two, three, or four central issues in that speech, he explains, then in your columns you should “return to those issues again and again and again.” As the year progresses, he explains, you don’t want readers to suddenly recall that you said you’d focus on, say, professionalism, and yet you haven’t brought it up in a single column.

A unifying device for the whole year’s worth of columns can be a great help—for you and for readers, too, Massie says. For example, each of Almeida’s columns is fundamentally about “greater justice for all.” The Bar Journal is bimonthly, so she is developing her overall message in six parts. This repetition, provided it’s artfully done, can help the reader understand the larger point a president wants to get across, and can also help ease a bit of anxiety, Massie says. It isn’t necessary that each column be an absolutely perfect expression of your message, he explains, because you’re looking at “a broader canvas” to be worked on over the course of the year.

Smaller topics also work; for example, Wise says, if you would like the bar to be more “transparent” to its mem-bers, then you can write in a very nuts-and-bolts way about “how things happen.” Also, he says, it’s human nature to get caught up in what’s new, but you could write a series of very useful columns highlighting member benefits the bar has had for quite a while but that members might not know about.

Itching to write about Bob Dylan songs, the Chicago Cubs, or whatever it is you love in your nonlawyer life? Go for it, said several of the professionals we talked to. Just make sure you do it smoothly and remember to make it applicable to readers who might not share those enthusiasms. The Cubs fan, who also included in each column a reference to high school mock trials, which he coaches, was president of the Washoe (Nev.) County Bar Associa-tion. “I think it probably helped him as he worked out topics,” recalls Christine Cendagorta, executive director, “and it never felt overdone.”

The current president, she adds, is devoting each column to spotlighting bar members who have noteworthy hob-bies or interests outside of the law. “They have really generated a lot of interest and talk,” notes Cendagorta, adding that she, too, has learned from these columns. “I’ve been here forever, and I didn’t know any of these prominent local lawyers drove race cars.”

The appeal of the columns that referenced “sometimes obscure” song titles from Bob Dylan and other artists, says Gary Toohey, director of communications at the Missouri Bar, was twofold. “The references were logically incorpo-rated into the column, thus not diminishing the point being made,” he says, “but also indicated the creativity he used—and the fun he had—in writing them.”

Even some controversy might be OK. Last year, around the time of President Obama’s inauguration, the presi-dent of the Multnomah (Ore.) Bar Association had his daughter write his column so readers could hear a young per-son’s thoughts on this historic event. She expressed some strong opinions, but Executive Director Judy A.C. Ed-wards “didn’t think her statements were controversial enough to cause heartache,” so she made the call that the col-umn should run as is. Indeed, while the column sparked critical letters—and some supportive ones—it did not cause a crisis. Edwards says she’s “not afraid to suggest changes” if she sees the potential for a column to have an unin-tended response, and she is confident that if she had suggested changes to this particular column, those would have been accepted.

The common thread in all of these topics is that the presidents involved were writing about things they cared about, loved, or thought were important, while making sure to reach out and include—or even provoke—readers as well.

Are there a couple of topics that have proven unsuccessful and should perhaps be avoided? Two of our experts say “yes,”—and they’re not topics you might expect to be problematic. In fact, they might be the two you had planned for your first and last columns.

“The absolute worst mistake a president can make is to devote the first column to telling readers what he or she intends to do as president and filling the last column by recapping the year,” Toohey says.

Why? “No one’s going to read it,” Cirucci agrees. You should especially think twice about a column in which you thank people who have helped you throughout the year, he believes; as nice as the impulse is, it is likely to backfire. You can’t possibly remember and thank all those helpful people, he explains, and those you don’t mention could feel terribly slighted. If you want to look back over the year, he suggests, a more interesting and less poten-tially hurtful way might be to write a column about some of your favorite moments of the year.

The real problem with starting the year with a column listing what you intend to do, Toohey says, is that you miss your first shot at making readers sit up and take notice. “I have had many members tell me that they have come to expect that [column listing plans for the year],” he explains, “so any president who goes against the grain by doing something different already has a leg up among our membership.”

 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Whatever and however you write, the bar professionals we spoke with want you to know that you don’t have to go it alone: All say helping bar presidents make an impact with their president’s pages is a responsibility they take seri-ously, and even relish.

Take advantage of the fact that you have bar staff to support you, Massie says, noting that most people aren’t lucky enough to have a full-service editor behind them all the way as they write. A seasoned professional who for many years taught writing, Massie sees his role of communications director as “editor, writer, and sometimes psy-chologist.”

Most of the time, he says, his edits are fairly small—such as removing run-ons, fixing misplaced prepositional phrases, or retooling sentences that are long enough to be “Faulkner-like.” But if a piece just isn’t working, Massie will rework the piece in a way that he thinks gets the president’s point across. When he does this more substantial rewriting, he always makes sure to run the new draft by the president to make sure both the substance and the tone are right.

Substantially reworking a piece is one thing, Massie says, but ghostwriting is quite another. “It takes away from the standing of the president if it’s known that you’re doing that,” he believes. For most of the bar professionals we spoke with, ghostwriting a column was something they did only occasionally, or just in emergencies.

Every rule has an exception, and in this case, it’s Cirucci. In his 28 years at the Philadelphia bar, he wrote most of the “Front Line” chancellor’s columns, and, he’s proud to say, “nobody ever knew.” Lawyers just aren’t trained to write 400 to 700 words with a catchy lead, in a way that quickly appeals to readers, he says. Rather than forcing someone to do something he or she is neither comfortable with nor adept at, he believes, it’s better to have a com-munications professional do the writing.

But that’s not to say the chancellor didn’t contribute: A week before each column was due, Cirucci would call the chancellor to discuss what it was he or she wanted to say. He would encourage the chancellor to talk freely about the topic and would then organize those thoughts into a column—which he would then review with the chancellor.

Presidents Ryan has worked with have asked for different levels of involvement. One president called and told him what he wanted the column to be about, and asked that he write it; the president then reviewed and revised it. Another “left a chunk of space in the middle of his column” and asked him to fill it in based on a particular idea he had. Another “was just not a good writer—and knew it,” so he had no problem with Ryan rewriting his drafts and filling out underdeveloped ideas.

Whatever level of involvement you and the bar staff mutually expect them to have with your columns, Ryan says, “The key is working closely, on a personal, informal basis, to make it all work.”

All the professionals we talked to spoke of the relationship they develop with each president, in part through helping with their columns. All say the relationship is based on trust: Whether you call on them to help brainstorm a topic or rewrite a particular passage, or whether you simply submit a draft for them to edit, they say, you can trust that they’ll be mindful of your unique voice and style. You might lose a comma or two, but it will still be your col-umn.

If they flag something, they say, know that they do so based on years of experience with these columns and be-cause one of their responsibilities is to act as your safety net.

“Own the style and feel of your column,” Cendagorta says. “Use your own voice, and trust us to not let you say anything that would hurt you or the bar.”

Writing a president’s page is an important task, one that Massie believes is among the most critical ones you’ll accomplish during your year as president. “At the same time,” he says, “have fun while you’re doing it.” Even with a serious topic, our experts say, if readers sense you’ve enjoyed writing your columns, those are the ones they’re likely to read—and remember.

If you’re stuck for a particular topic or stumped by the whole idea of writing president’s pages, help is available—from your own bar staff, and also from the ABA Division for Bar Services. At www.abanet.org/barserv/resourcepages/presidentpages.shtml, you’ll find links to handouts from past years’ ABA Bar Leadership Institute programming on this topic, relevant articles from past issues of Bar Leader, and sam-ple columns from bar associations around the country.

Bookmark it, and have a great year!

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