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Vol. 31, No. 5

Do you dare to innovate? Why should you?

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Not many bar executives realize the importance of fostering an entrepreneurial spirit at the bar, believes Denny Ramey, executive director of the Ohio State Bar Association. Many are too afraid of risk and possible failure to venture an innovative idea—and that’s a shame, he said, speaking at the Midyear Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives in Miami in February.

“I think the real risk is in doing nothing,” he said, adding that if elected bar leaders really wanted a functionary who would simply carry out their orders, they could hire someone with far less education and personal drive than an executive director typically has.

David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association, offered some words of encouragement for those who fear failure: “I have learned more from any one of my failures than from anything I did that was successful.”

Those wanting to break the mold and try something new—whether it be a new approach to member services, or a product to offer for sale to other bars—might be refreshingly surprised by how enthusiastically members come on board. That’s what Mary Corbitt found when she arrived at the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association five years ago, determined as a new executive director to break out of the “this is the way we’ve always done it” routine. While some staff were hesitant, she said, “members were ready for change.” In reassessing the package of member benefits and services, Corbitt said, the bar refocused its energy on “delivering first-rate, quality member service” and “giving the bar back to members” rather than doing what felt safe and comfortable for staff.

But what if a senior staff member comes up with an idea that ends up being an expensive and even embarrassing failure? Isn’t his or her job on the line? Blaner and Ramey agreed that committing to innovation means creating an environment where it isn’t just the executive director who has permission to learn from mistakes and move on. Blaner tells staff directors that as long as they are coming up with new ideas and taking calculated risks, “I don’t care if you fail.”

Achieving board buy-in

All the speakers said taking a risk doesn’t mean jumping without looking—or without preparing the board for the jump, too. One important way to do that is to make sure the bar can weather a risk that doesn’t turn out well. Before you can innovate, Blaner said, you need to make sure you have a reserve equal to at least six months of your operations budget; at that level, board members tend to feel more comfortable in letting you explore a new idea. Ramey noted that his bar has a designated reserve called the “entrepreneurial fund.”

Blaner, whose bar has a for-profit subsidiary that offers videoconferencing, court reporting, and other law-related services, tells the boards of the association, foundation, and for-profit, “We’re going to hit some foul balls” in the pursuit of great new ideas. Further, he makes sure they know it can take some time to sort out the great ideas from the not so great. While everyone wants the quick payoff, Blaner said it takes 24 to 36 months to determine if a new venture is successful or if it’s time to pull out.

That three-year time frame presents a challenge, he noted: “In our business, that’s three presidents.” It’s important, he said, to reinforce a “shared vision” at the bar that includes entrepreneurial spirit so promising new endeavors aren’t killed off when leadership changes hands. That’s where a long-term strategic plan focused on innovation and member service can help, Ramey added, as can a staff and board who are committed to entrepreneurship, even if a particular president isn’t.

One way to build such a culture, Ramey noted, is to start small. If your bar has not been terribly innovative in the past, it’s best not to start with a huge, risky project, like the OSBA’s well-known and ultimately successful Casemaker online research product; instead, look for smaller, more achievable goals first. “If you have successes along the way, the board is more confident,” he said.

You need not look very far for those first opportunities, Corbitt said. When she arrived at the Monroe County bar, she was stunned to realize that no one had ever asked the lawyers working at Thomson West if they would like to join, even though the organizations had been across the street from one another for many years. Gaining 120 new members from within Thomson West did require a bit of risk, Corbitt added, in that it meant creating a membership package that would appeal to in-house lawyers, which provoked some grumbling over whether the bar was catering too much to those lawyers. But Corbitt remains committed to the idea that for a bar to innovate and attract new members, “It can’t be one deal for everybody. You have to customize.”

Survey and plan

Innovation also requires a detailed business plan, Blaner said, one that spells out, among other factors, what the idea is; what’s required in terms of money, staff, time, and other resources; who’s in charge; whether the bar could be sued as a result of the project; any tax implications; potential downsides; and existing competitors.

Also important, the speakers noted, is to make sure you know what members care about. A relatively easy Survey Monkey query revealed that what MCBA members wanted most was for the bar to help improve the public’s regard for the profession and do something about lawyer advertisements they felt harmed that perception. As a result, the bar was instrumental in what became a statewide effort to reform the lawyer advertising regulations.

The directive to “help us feel better about the legal profession” underlies other MCBA innovations, including the decision to bring together four civil legal services organizations under the same roof as the bar association and foundation. The civil legal services organizations enjoy a higher profile by being in the bar building, and the reasonable rent for their space has allowed them to hire back some lawyers they had let go. In turn, bar members feel gratified and inspired by the bar’s helping the legal services organizations in this way, and appreciate the boost given by the building’s name: the Honorable Michael A. Telesca Center for Justice, named for an esteemed federal judge in Rochester.

Blaner noted that online surveys are an important part of the ACBA’s business planning process for vetting new ideas. Rather than presenting an idea to the board right away, the bar does an online survey first to gauge member interest. “If it gets a bad survey response, it’s dead,” he said.

But Ramey finds the decision of whether to pursue an idea isn’t always so cut and dried; it takes intuition, too. “There’s that tickle on the back of your neck that tells you whether to go forward or not,” he said.

Perhaps as important as knowing whether to pursue an idea is knowing when it’s time to make changes or scrap it entirely, the speakers said. One of the MCBA’s successful innovations was its BARgain Card for member discounts, a brand concept it has also offered to other bars. While there was a lot of excitement when the card debuted, Corbitt said, it has become clear that the program needs a fresh shot of energy and creative thinking. Corbitt used this example to illustrate that even a great idea can wobble a bit, without being a “complete failure” that should be abandoned.

A good exit strategy is key, Ramey said; without one, a truly unsuccessful project can linger for years. In the ’70s, before Ramey arrived, the bar bought a printing company to ensure that weekly advance sheets went out on time, and offered its services for printing letterhead, invitations, and other corporate and personal stationery. It may have been an interesting idea, but customers never really responded, Ramey said, and it was a “miserable failure” because there wasn’t a clear plan for cutting the bar’s losses and getting out.

But another OSBA innovation had an extremely successful and well-planned exit, Ramey noted. In response to member complaints that it took three or four days to get driver’s license records, the bar partnered with a company to deliver the information online. The OSBA had invested $1 million in the project, and when the company decided to take it national, it bought the bar out for $7 million.

The rewards of innovation

For those bars that dare to innovate, the rewards can be many, Ramey said. The entrepreneurial spirit can increase member satisfaction, helping in recruiting and retention. It can increase the bar’s visibility in the legal profession. It can also lessen the bar’s dependence on dues revenue. The OSBA’s top dues category is $275, and 55 percent of its revenue is nondues; the MCBA’s top category is $235, with 40 to 45 percent nondues revenue; and the ACBA’s top level is $170, with 77 percent nondues revenue.

Furthermore, the speakers said, there can be personal rewards for the executive director, too. Bar association EDs tend not to think much about ways to earn a raise, Blaner finds, but he said it’s well worth realizing that board members often come from a law firm culture that rewards success earned through risk-taking. To put it bluntly, he said, “When you take a risk and succeed, the board wants to pay you more.”

But there are intangible benefits, too, Ramey said: “Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks. You’re going to enjoy your job more.”