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Vol. 30, No. 5

An overheard conversation

by David S. Houghton

At the ABA Bar Leadership Institute in March, I was in the hotel lobby waiting on a friend. I couldn’t help but overhear a couple of folks sitting next to me—a gentleman who was trying to decide about a bar leadership role and a woman who was nearing the end of her bar president’s year. I found their conversation interesting and started taking some notes. I have changed the names to protect the innocent and, as you might guess, I have edited some of the questions and answers.

Daniel (bar president want-to-be): I think this BLI has been tremendous. I’m thinking seriously about putting my name in for president-elect, but I’m trying to figure out what I should consider in making that decision.

Amy (current bar president): That’s great, Dan. You’ve done a lot of work in the association, so I’m sure you have a good handle on what we’re doing now. Let’s see ... I think the first thing you should ask yourself is, “Why do I want to do this?” Do you know the answer to that?

Daniel: Well, at least partially. Basically, I think what lawyers do is very important. And I believe good bar associations can help them help people in a lot of different ways.

Amy: Great answer! And I agree!

Daniel: Thanks. But shouldn’t I be thinking about other stuff?

Amy: Oh, sure. There’s a whole list of things you need to think through.
The first thing you need to think about is the impact on your family. You should talk to them about that. There’s travel. There are meetings. There are late nights and weekends at the office trying to keep your clients happy. Your family makes a huge commitment, and they need to be supportive of what you’re trying to do.
Second, your firm. How many hours are you going to be required to give up? What will be the impact on clients? What will the impact be on your compensation? What expenses are going to be covered by the bar, and what expenses will the firm cover—and what expenses will you handle out of your own pocket?
Third, you need to talk to your support staff. This will create a huge amount of additional work for your assistant and for the people who work with you in your office.
And fourth, talk to Darla, our executive director at the bar association. Find out what she thinks it takes to be a successful bar president and what kind of commitment will be required. She’ll also be able to help you figure out if there is anything special coming up in the next two or three years that you need to know about.

Daniel: Sounds like a lot of “due diligence.”

Amy: It is, but it will pay huge dividends. If everyone has fairly accurate expectations about how your service to the bar will impact them, things will go a lot more smoothly for you and for everyone else in your life.

Daniel: Did you do all that before you decided to run?

Amy: Mostly. Some, I only wish I had done.

Daniel: Did anybody give you any really good advice?

Amy: You bet. It came from Darla. She’s a person any bar president would thank God for. She told me four things that were great advice.
First, she told me that a good bar leader is a great listener and spends more time listening than talking.
Second, she told me to be myself. She apparently had seen too many people who ignored their own strengths and points of view and kind of got lost in the process.
Third, she told me to have fun.
And fourth, she told me that the two most important words in the effective bar leader’s vocabulary are thank you. Nobody gets much done alone, and bar leaders need to recognize all of the efforts of other folks and be grateful to all the people who make those kinds of contributions.

Daniel: One of the things I am a little afraid of is that I don’t have any big ideas. I’ve been trying to figure out where to get the ideas for a defining program or theme for my year.

Amy: Well, the truth is that sometimes the big idea can become a problem. What I’ve seen is that the most successful associations are the ones where the volunteer leaders see themselves as part of a continuum. Those that struggle are the ones where there is one big program after another with no real continuity.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Having a theme or a program that everyone, including staff, buys into and that is designed to be led by more than one bar president is fine. If you have some ideas, talk them through with Darla and the governing board, and especially your president-elect. If they all buy in, it’ll be much better.
I guess in summary, the best advice I can give you is to think “resource allocation” and “sustainability.”

Daniel: Amy, you’re almost through your year. Do you think you’ve been effective? Do you think you’ve been a success?

Amy: I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll know whether my year was good for the bar association or not at least until my president-elect finishes her year. Maybe the proof is even further out than that. I don’t think I will have been a success until the presidents who serve after me are successes.

Right then, my friend showed up. I was a little disappointed because Amy was giving out some pretty good advice. As I stood up to shake my friend’s hand, I thought that Daniel had a lot better chance at being a successful president and actually enjoying bar service with the kind of support and advice that Amy was giving him. He’s a lucky guy. So is his association.

—By David S. Houghton

David S. Houghton is chair of the ABA Stand-ing Committee on Bar Activities and Services.