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January 01, 2007

Leadership 101

Michelle A. Behnke

Recently, the State Bar of Wisconsin experienced the retirement of two longtime directors: Betty Braden, director of member services and a past president of NABE, and Patrick Kelley, director of administration. When these two professionals announced their respective retirements, there were many questions. Where would we find experienced staff to replace them? Should the organization be reorganized to consolidate functions? How would members react? The change presented challenges and opportunities. The most important point is that both staff members announced their retirement with a long lead time to allow for planning and transition.

The loss of longtime staff is an issue that many associations are beginning to face or soon will. Bar associations need to participate in a dialogue and begin planning for the retirement or loss of key staff. While volunteer leadership provides a fresh view and new passions, the established staff leadership provides institutional memory, administrative execution, and political savvy. The loss of key staff, without a strategy or plan in place for addressing this change in professional leadership, can take focus off the association’s ongoing projects and result in a loss of momentum.

Similarly, associations must now look to the changes in membership as many members hit retirement age and step out of full-time practice. Many of these members are the backbone of the volunteer ranks both because of the sheer numbers and because of the years of experience. Bars must prepare not just for the potential exodus of members, but for ways to retain and serve those members as they move toward retirement. Bar associations must find ways to harness the extra time these members may have once they do retire. Practice management services may also be needed to help these lawyers with the mechanics of closing a practice, protecting client information, securing malpractice insurance coverage, and, of course, the emotional challenges connected with a life transition.

Let me suggest that the ABA and the Division for Bar Services are just the place for you to get valuable information on both of these issues. This year, ABA President Karen Mathis is focusing on lawyers retiring from the profession with the “Second Season of Service,” an initiative aimed at reaching lawyers as they retire or plan to retire and helping them channel their energies into meaningful volunteer service. As with other ABA programs, I encourage you to peruse the information on the ABA Web site—visit—and consider its applicability to your locale.

Taking something off the shelf and pasting it onto existing programs is always tricky, but a careful review of your existing programs and services may reveal an opening for this ABA program and provide the basis for a discussion and planning within your organization. Addressing the retiring member issue could allow your association to capitalize on the experience of those retiring association members and bring new energy to mentoring and pro bono programs that are so desperately needed.

Make plans to attend BLI

As bar leaders, we all want to lead well. Good leadership often starts with good planning—not just planning a program or a theme for “your year,” but planning for the future of the organization and planning to meet the challenges facing associations and the legal profession. The upcoming ABA Bar Leadership Institute, March 15 through 17 in Chicago, is the perfect opportunity to learn more about leadership issues, and, more important, the BLI gives you a great opportunity to work on these leadership skills and to forge new friendships and connections. The BLI is a great event to connect you with bar leaders from around the country and allow you to discuss current bar issues with other bar leaders. The BLI gives you access to national speakers as well as the voice of experienced volunteer bar leaders who want to share their knowledge and help make your leadership work easier and much more rewarding.

If you are not familiar with the BLI program, please visit

barserv/bli.html, and see the information in the calendar on the back page of this issue. Also, please feel free to contact me or any member of the Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services or a staff member of the ABA Division for Bar Services. We would be happy to connect with you a BLI alum from your state to share a firsthand account of the BLI experience.

It’s never too early to begin to prepare for leadership, and it’s never too early to prepare for transition. The Division for Bar Services is ready to help you with both.