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Vol. 29, No. 4

Bar Association 101: Tips and tactics for orienting your board

“We do that?”

Even long-term board members from the smallest associations have heard this whispered among themselves during board meetings. As a member and practicing lawyer, you may only see one or two aspects of what the bar is doing at any given time. The most committed bar leaders who have worked their way up through the ranks of sections and committees at times find themselves in awe of the myriad intricacies of the bar’s work at large.

Left to osmosis, orienting oneself to those complexities can take months or even years. New members of the board often suffer a learning curve that may prevent them from fully participating until they feel educated and comfortable enough to contribute—and by then, their term might be up!

So how does an association bring its board members up to speed?

While to many people the word “orientation” conjures up images of sitting for long hours listening to someone regurgitating information at them—eyes glazing over, backsides getting numb—a good orientation can educate even the most seasoned bar leader and put a new bar leader at confident ease before ever sitting in on the first board meeting.

Who conducts our orientation? How long should it be? Should we provide a manual? Whom should we invite? Thoughts of time constraints, boredom, and questions like these can prevent a bar from even taking the first step toward initiating its own program.

The following are a few principles, courtesy of those who have been there, that can help ensure that your “Bar Association 101” is a success year after year.

The agenda

According to one expert, one of the mistakes often made in creating an orientation agenda is that the wrong people are deciding what the board should know.

Hildy Gottlieb, president of Help 4 NonProfits & Tribes ( and author of Board Recruitment and Orientation: A Step-by-Step, Common Sense Guide, believes the agenda should be decided by those seeking the knowledge—the board members themselves. “The board knows what they need to govern effectively,” she says. Her advice is to let them be the ones to decide what information they need to be more effective in their leadership capacity.

Oftentimes, presenters such as department and committee heads are provided time slots in an agenda to fill and are left to decide what should be presented to the board. What winds up happening, Gottlieb says, is “The presenter knows 100 percent; the board 0 percent, so the presenter teaches the board how to do their job, instead of what they need to know about the end result of their job.”

Gottlieb doesn’t think the executive director should have no role; he or she facilitates, rather than taking on the entire task of designing the orientation. “Boards are so accustomed to taking their cues from the executive director,” Gottlieb explains. “Yet, they are the ones accountable for the decisions they make. Allowing them to decide what they want to know can be very empowering.”

Gottlieb suggests all existing board members ask themselves what they wish they had known as new board members to help them make more informed decisions, and what information they feel they are lacking in now. Also to consider is the executive director’s input on what information he or she feels should not be overlooked. “Then spend a half-hour at the board meeting compiling the agenda and deciding which ‘experts from within’ should present the desired information,” Gottlieb advises.

When the board is allowed to request the information to be given in an orientation program, board members feel their time is well spent, boredom is less likely, and the stress is taken off the presenters to decide what to cover, she says. Not only will incoming board members benefit, current ones will have the opportunity to learn something they didn’t know.

“Don’t overlook sessions covering the mission statement and how the organization fits into the community,” Gottlieb says, adding that it’s also important to give an overview of the balance sheet. Balance sheets may differ from organization to organization, creating a knowledge rift for a new board member—even one who has been part of other groups.

Gottlieb also recommends a session on how the board functions and how it handles accountability. “Some are policy-making boards that make recommendations to the executive director and get out of the way, and others are really hands-on,” she explains. “It’s important for new members to know how it works.” Addressing this up front can help head off the all too common confusion over staff and volunteer roles.

The time frame

The length of orientation will vary from association to association—and the size of the bar isn’t always the determining factor, some say. Some smaller bars are very diverse and have many programs and interests, while some large bars may have very few. This may also vary from year to year as issues arise or subside.

According to Gottlieb, “The orientation needs to be as long as it needs to be.” Keeping value for time in mind, there is no magic number designating the appropriate length for an orientation program, she says.

The North Carolina Bar Association conducts a half-day orientation for its board, and a similar, though more in-depth orientation for new division and section chairs, whose responsibilities are frequently more complex and time sensitive.

NCBA Executive Director Allan Head notes the need for a streamlined agenda. “One thing we are emphasizing a lot more now than we used to is respecting the time we exact from board members, and all bar leaders. It seems like time becomes more and more precious to all of us as each year goes by.”

The Oregon State Bar’s orientation program is a brief two and a half hours, and is the lead-in to the next day’s strategic planning retreat. “We give the new board members a jump start on how the board operates and what it does, so they can be active even at their first meeting,” explains Executive Director Karen Garst.

During the orientation, Garst covers in a half-hour’s time the bar, its entities, and its major programs, including regulatory, member and public services, public affairs, and operations. Over the years the Oregon bar, too, has streamlined its meeting. “We used to talk about programs and services and have staff present,” Garst says. “We now have board chairs discuss what their committees do at the board level.”

The ‘guest list’

In the interest of time, schedules, and budgets, some associations limit their orientation programs to new board members. Many, however, believe strongly that all board members should attend. “That’s part of orientation—to meet the other board members,” believes Allen County (Ind.) Bar Association President Kathleen M. Anderson, who recently initiated an orientation program for the ACBA. “By participating in discussions and giving reports, the returning members help orient the new members—and having everyone involved ensures that everyone is ‘on the same page’ for the year.”

Gottlieb agrees. She suggests calling the session “Orientation and Board Retraining.”

“One of the most important factors in board effectiveness is how well the group works together as a team, and forming a solid team takes getting to know each other,” she says. “Learning the same things—or at least reviewing them—at the same time is a great way to do that, especially if the topics the group will be learning have all been initiated by the board members themselves.

“If you think about a team of employees, it isn’t usually qualifications that will tank the team’s ability to function; it is whether or not they fit together and work together well. If they don’t ‘work and play well’ together, it often doesn’t matter how qualified they are.”

The Oregon bar promotes new board member education and team camaraderie with a mentoring program. When invited to participate, incoming board member Rick Yugler asked himself, “At age 49, do I really need a mentor?” But it was “a fabulous way to spend my time,” he soon discovered.

“If you want to be a contributing member to a board, it’s an education process as well as a socialization process,” he says. “Every board functions differently. One benefit of having a mentor is that it’s good to know someone who has the inside story, the direction the board is taking, and the dynamics of the personalities involved.”

Explains Gottlieb, “A more seasoned board member acting as a mentor to a new board member helps indoctrinate the new member into the culture of the board.” Mentors provide a bit of “please call me if you have questions” hand-holding, as well as the undefined “that’s not how we do things” human intervention.

Often, new board members come in with prior leadership experience on boards of other organizations, and some practices and methodologies have to be unlearned. Yugler, a former president of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, admits to—at times—having to reorient his thinking. “Coming from an active political group, it was good to be reminded that this association functions a little differently,” he says. “We are restricted in many ways by the Keller decision, and are charged by statute with many things, including a public education function.

“By the time I went to the new member orientation, I had a good idea about how the board functions, the activities it is involved in, the important issues it is facing, and the personalities of board members who will be my friends and colleagues. When I later attended my first board meeting, I was not lost in the weeds, and felt like I was able to contribute to the meeting right out of the gate.”

CBLE—Continuing Bar Leader Education

Orientation is, by its very nature, information overload. But even the most intensive orientation will not provide all of the information necessary for a bar leader to make every decision he or she will ever make on behalf of the bar.

While not all associations provide additional board education programs throughout the year, Gottlieb recommends that a 15-minute session be given during each board meeting. Such sessions can provide more in-depth information about topics covered briefly during an orientation, without bogging the meeting down.

Another source of continuing education is the board manual, and as with the length of the orientation, there is tremendous variation from bar to bar. Some manuals are small, sleek, concise ... others are boat anchors. The consensus seems to be that size doesn’t really matter as long as what you need—or a reference to a place to find what you need—is addressed in it. Gottlieb suggests taking 20 minutes at a board meeting and deciding what information you frequently wish you had on hand at a meeting. This could include bylaws, policies, a current address list of members and key staff, a mission statement, an annual calendar, the budget … every board will need something different, Gottlieb says.

“We try to emphasize its use as a reference, not a comprehensive book containing every substantive report,” says New York State Bar Association Assistant Executive Director Beth Krueger of her bar’s three-ring executive committee notebook. “For each item, we try to identify where they can obtain more information and what staff member they can contact if they need added resources.” Also included is a summary of the issues the executive committee is currently addressing and those it has addressed in the immediate past.

The North Carolina Bar Association’s manual has been significantly shortened. “It used to be 3 inches thick,” Head says, “but in recognizing that many of them don’t touch it again, it is now half that size.”

Still, Head believes when valuable time and energy is expended on its production, a manual shouldn’t hit the shelf without first being examined. “We want to be sure that your fingers touch some of these pages at least once,” he tells attendees at the orientation, and then leads them on a 15-minute tour of the manual’s contents.

While bar associations’ Web sites are becoming invaluable resources for quick access to contact lists, mission statements, policies, press releases, and other items that board members frequently need, “You just can’t hand them a disk or give them a site,” Head says. “We have found there is no substitute for something in the hand, especially when dealing with responsibilities.”

Making it worthwhile

Whether your orientation program is two days long or two hours long, attendance is the responsibility of the individual board member—and it’s a very important responsibility. “When a board member commits to govern accountably, they have a duty of loyalty to the organization,” Gottlieb says. “If they have chosen to be a member, they must understand what they are doing.”

But that responsibility doesn’t have to be a burden. If attendees are provided the necessary information with which to govern effectively—not to mention camaraderie—a strong, fast-paced orientation is going to be worth their time. Again, Gottlieb stresses that your safeguard for success is that “the impetus is coming from the board and they are predetermining what is being presented.

“And food,” she jokes, “You must serve food.”

Allowing those seeking the knowledge to set the agenda, to decide upon the session presenters, and to develop the manual’s contents can mean the difference between a successful board orientation and an unsuccessful one—or as one director calls it, a “bored orientation.”

Board orientation do’s and don’ts

  • Don’t let decisions about content be entirely staff-driven.
  • Do have the board members themselves determine what they need to know to govern accountably, with input from the CEO.
  • Don’t allow the orientation activities to be determined by the staff.
  • Do have the board’s governance committee use the board’s brainstormed list to create the day’s agenda. Have the committee determine which portions the staff should present, and specifically what content they want presented at that time. That will prevent a staff person from rambling on for half an hour about his or her program.
  • Don’t put off the orientation until board members “have time.”
  • Do calendar the board’s whole year’s worth of activities, from adoption of the budget to election of officers/annual meeting, to the annual orientation. That will give everyone notice a year in advance of the orientation!
  • Don’t think just because someone holds a professional position in their “real life,” that they necessarily understand financial matters. A great number of board members from all walks of life make financial decisions without completely understanding the core financial issues at hand.
  • Do include a brief review of 101-level finance in your orientation. Do have the treasurer offer to privately mentor any who are embarrassed that they don’t understand financial matters.
  • Don’t think orientation is just for new board members.
  • Do have board members annually determine what they need to learn in order to govern, and have them all attend orientation every year. Call it “Orientation and Board Retraining.”
  • Don’t stock your board manual so full of “stuff” that it is no longer useful.
  • Do ask the board what materials would be helpful to have with them at all times, and use that list to build your manual.
  • Don’t forget boards need ongoing education, all year long—both on the specifics of what the organization does, and on the overall themes of governance and accountability.
  • Do consider making some of your “orientation” an ongoing, year-round learning process, perhaps just 15 minutes at every board meeting.
  • Don’t forget the simple introductory things that make the human side of boards work more smoothly.
  • Do wear name tags at meetings. It helps new people feel less new, and helps outsiders address board members by name, instead of “the gentleman in the brown sweater.” And do have food at meetings, even if it’s just popcorn—people work better together when they’re fed!
  • Don’t make your orientation all business.
  • Do have a light dinner immediately following your orientation. Boards work best when they know each other better, and the orientation will give board members much to talk about over dinner!

—By Hildy Gottlieb

Hildy Gottlieb, president of Help 4 NonProfits & Tribes and author of Board Recruitment and Orientation: A Step-by-Step, Common Sense Guide, can be reached at (520) 321-4433, ext. 201, or [email protected].