Well I can’t say they didn’t warn me, and repeatedly at that. In considering whether to put my hat in the ring for the position of Forum Chair-elect, I talked with many of the recent Forum Chairs, asking about responsibilities that I might not appreciate, and especially, about how much time rotation through the three Forum officer positions (Chair-Elect, Chair, and Immediate Past Chair) would require over the three year period. The most common advice was “whatever amount of time you think it will require, it takes a lot more.” And so it is, right from the start.
The Chair-elect, even when just the nominee for that position, well in advance of the election at the Annual Meeting, quickly becomes consumed with the three national meetings under his or her jurisdiction – in my case those to be held during the 2012-13 ABA yearly cycle. The only aspect that is more or less “fixed” at the outset is that there will be a Fall, a Mid-Winter and a spring (Annual) meeting – everything about the meetings themselves is up for grabs. You don’t have to ponder for too long the problem of creating from scratch not one, but three CLE programs that will both attract and educate, in an interesting way, four or five hundred of your colleagues to become pretty daunted by the responsibility in front of you. But the reality, of course, is that you don’t do it all yourself – not even close. Actually, all that the Chair-elect really needs to do is just set the machinery in motion to get a program off the ground. Settle on a location, pick a hotel, come up with an idea about a theme, and appoint a Governing Committee liaison and program co-chairs. From there, the marvelous machinery of the Forum takes over, starting with the program co-chairs and GC liaison running with the general concept and brainstorming ideas for specific program topics.
The circle then widens when the Governing Committee gets involved, adding suggestions and comments on the ideas of the co-chairs, and suggesting possible speaker candidates. As speakers are selected, program coordinators (cat-herders) identified, and persons tapped for the many other specialized roles (lunch speakers, Division breakfast speakers, volunteers to coordinate associated events like a golf outing, people to staff the Publications and Division signup tables, and on and on), the circle of those involved gets wider and wider. Eventually, it’s a small army, and every person plays a part in the meeting’s success. And of course, our Forum staff, led by Forum Manager Amanda Raible, is involved at every step as well.
What is most remarkable about this is that, with the exception of the Forum staff, the entire army is unpaid volunteers, donating their valuable time and effort to creating a CLE program, with its associated events, for the benefit of others. The Forum has been very fortunate for many years now in having an ample number of its members ready and willing to get involved – to volunteer for all of these roles, large and small. But why is that? What causes busy construction lawyers to be so willing to give up potentially billable time (or time off) to work for the Forum?
Being a Forum officer is a lot like being a trustee. I am being entrusted with the care and feeding of this amazing and successful organization for a bit. Objective number one is not to screw it up. Objective number two is to do my part, following on a long line of Chairs before me, to build on past accomplishments and make the Forum an even stronger and better organization. So not surprisingly, in thinking about taking on the Forum officer positions, I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about this question of motivation, and more generally, what makes the Forum such a successful volunteer organization.
At various times in my career, I have also been active in two ABA Sections outside the Forum, which here shall remain unidentified. I suspect every ABA group trumpets how well-received its programs are, how enthusiastic its active members are, and how collegial it is. These two certainly did. But in both of those instances, to be frank, this was mainly bluster – most Section committees were basically moribund, programs relatively slapdash and participation lackluster. And the bureaucracy! Each clearly had a small leadership group at the top that sincerely enjoyed their participation, but below that veneer there was not a whole lot of energy in the organization. The Forum truly is different, and we are very lucky; the exception and not the rule within ABA-world, so far as I can tell. But why?
There is a long list of possible explanations, of course: We offer top quality CLE that attracts attendees to programs and members to the Forum generally. The networking opportunities are excellent. There is the opportunity to become better known to and respected by your peers across the country. We have good parties. We hold meetings in attractive locations. There is always enough coffee, and occasionally cookies appear at afternoon break. All of these reasons and doubtless many more contribute to our success. But what I concluded in the end is that the Forum is successful because it is fun.
By “fun,” I am not just referring here to the parties and the cookies, although both register positively on the fun-meter. I am talking about the entire experience of participating actively in the Forum and its work. The people you meet are friendly and leave their pretentions at home (those few who are mainly interested in impressing others tend to get discouraged pretty quickly, or if they stick around, change their tune to fit the prevailing Forum ethos). Getting involved is easy and low pressure, and the door is always open and welcoming for new faces. Best of all, there is the enjoyment of contributing to the greater good, of being part of something larger than yourself, whether it is participating in a Division project, contributing to a book, speaking at a breakfast meeting, or coordinating a program session. Your contributions directly benefit our chosen field of interest – construction law – and are welcomed and recognized, and that is just plain enjoyable.
Then, at the end of the day, you go to the cocktail party with those nice people you met at the cookie table. And over time you find that they have become good friends, with lots of shared good times at the Forum. The fact that it’s fun is why I became and stayed active in the Forum, and I am pretty sure the same applies to most of us.
Then there is what the Forum is NOT. There is a minimum of internal politics, and advancement to more responsible roles is a meritocracy, based on past efforts and the quality of those efforts. Do a great job as a Division breakfast speaker, and down the road people remember you when they are looking for plenary session panelists. And so forth. Bureaucracy is kept to a minimum (truth told, much of what bureaucracy we suffer from stems from ABA policies forced upon us). Politics, pettiness, and bureaucracy aren’t fun.
So that is my self-chosen charter as I take on the Chair-elect responsibilities – help make the Forum more fun, and fight back whenever something threatens to take us in the direction of bureaucracy, politics, or pettiness. So whenever you have an idea for making the Forum more rewarding and fun, let me know!