Message from the Chair-Elect: Reinforcing the Foundation, Envisioning the Future

Vol. 14 No. 2

By

Andy Ness is a partner at Jones Day in Washington D.C. and the current Chair-Elect of the Forum.

Those of us lucky enough to be chosen Chair-Elect of the Forum share a strong desire to leave it a better place than we found it, once our tour of duty is complete. Over the years, the leadership initiatives of generations of Chairs have collectively been a major contributor to the Forum’s tremendous growth and success. While some Chairs have used this opportunity to advance a longstanding specific interest, others have instead been forced by events to focus on responding to the needs of the organization at the moment.

In my case, it’s become increasingly clear over the past year that due to a combination of circumstances, what the Forum needs more than anything else right now is to attend to the health of some of its basic infrastructure. At the same time, we are just underway on the process of revising our strategic plan for the next several years, the basic document intended to guide our way ahead. Together, these two very different forces drive my priorities for the Forum in the year ahead, a combination I have tried to capture in the title here — “Reinforcing the Foundation, Envisioning the Future.”

What is involved in “Reinforcing the Foundation”? In recent years the Forum has expanded its activities several-fold, thanks to the energy and ideas of many of our members. Not long ago, we produced two national programs a year, plus a third that was a shared effort with FSLC. This year we are producing three national programs, a regional program held in 6 cities simultaneously, a new special program on construction insurance (held twice), and our initial construction trial academy. Plus, of course, a variety of webinars and telephone programs. Our book publishing program that a few years ago set the ambitious goal of producing two books a year has recently published as many as five in a year. This amazing growth in our activities would strain the resources of any organization.

At the same time as our needs have grown significantly, our capabilities have actually been diminished. This has been due to a number of factors outside our control, mainly events occurring within the ABA. The relaunch of the “new and improved” ABA website a year ago proved a major step back for the Forum’s website, from which we are only recently recovered, thanks to herculean efforts by Chair Jim Schenck and others. Various other ABA issues have affected our program registration process and ability to track attendees, the publication of this newsletter, the publicizing of our programs, and our ability to track our expenditures against budget, to name just some. Further ABA budget cuts on the horizon promise more challenges to come. All this has forced us at times to resort to a series of stopgap measures to keep the trains running more or less on time. Hopefully, relatively little of this has been noticeable to most members, but the Forum is able to maintain its pace of operations currently only due to the behind the scenes efforts of many members who have pitched in to handle thankless tasks, sometimes on an emergency basis. We need to focus on fixing such operational problems that soak up large amounts of member time that would be far better spent on the programs, publications and people that are the heart of our mission.

So the biggest challenge for the next year is to overcome these operational issues, in many cases by working more intensively and directly with the various departments and functions within ABA, but perhaps also by making some changes to our organizational structure. We need to put in place a structure and systems that will support effectively and efficiently the expanded activities of the Forum today, and allow for their further development in the years to come. George Meyer, now Immediate Past Chair, laid the foundation when he asked the Forum’s Divisions, Committees and Publications to write down as protocols their largely oral practices and customs, in order to maintain that learning from year to year, but now we need to take the next step. This won’t happen overnight and indeed may well take more than one year to accomplish, but this will be my main operational focus in the year to come.

“Envisioning the Future” of course refers to the now-underway strategic planning process and the initial steps of implementing it once complete. In my view, the strategic planning process serves two major functions. First, it offers the opportunity for a broad and diverse group of active and interested Forum members to focus on the “big picture” questions of the Forum’s role, mission and goals, and to formulate specific objectives for implementation in the next several years. Many of our most notable innovations — the regional programs and the trial academy to name just two — started as ideas that found their way into prior strategic plans. Those plans were not just lofty documents put on a shelf, but actually served as action plans that led to those initial ideas being converted into reality in the years that followed.

Second, our strategic planning is an institution-building process that develops and reinforces our culture and all the good things that the Forum has come to stand for. By design, the Forum turns over its leadership positions with greater frequency than most ABA groups, which keeps us fresh and vital, and opens a steady flow of opportunities for new and newly active members to take on leading roles. But the downside is that the core group of Officers, Governing Committee members, Division Chairs, and standing committee members changes quite rapidly. Within just a few years this group is 90% new faces. This means that we are constantly at risk of losing the qualities that make the Forum special — unless we continue to talk about them and reinforce them on an ongoing basis. The strategic planning process plays a key role in our constant institutional renewal.

Doubtless the present strategic planning exercise will result in some great new objectives to accomplish over the next several years. Implementing them, especially while at the same time retooling and improving our basic operations, will be quite a challenge. There is much to do, and frankly a good deal of the effort will not be glamorous. But the Forum membership has always proved more than equal to the task, and doubtless will be again. And like so many of our endeavors, the spirit of teamwork we enjoy will make our individual efforts both easier and more enjoyable. There will be plenty of opportunities for those interested to contribute!


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