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Vol. 32, No. 3

It all works together: strengthening the bar by developing its staff

by Robert J. Derocher

When Marilyn Wellington became executive director of the Massachusetts Bar Association in December 2005, one of her most important tasks was to decrease staff turnover. The bar was emerging from a very difficult period, and stability and a positive atmosphere were needed in order to move forward.

Two years later, turnover at the MBA has been cut in half, a feat that Wellington attributes in great part to an intensified commitment to staff training and development.

“I’m a big believer in getting people out there to do outside training and attend conferences,” she says. “I encourage them to find opportunities to work with colleagues in other states. You’re not going to keep people unless they feel they’re growing and learning in the organization.”

Wellington and other bar execs tout the value of regular and meaningful staff training and development, but there is also a growing sense of concern in the bar community about the future. Lean budgets and stretched staffs threaten to make it more difficult to seek out and pay for such learning opportunities.

“We’re hearing anecdotally that as people look at budgets, [training and development funds] are an easy target,” says Elizabeth Derrico, who works with bars nationwide as associate director of the ABA Division for Bar Services. “It’s not a program or a service for members, so it’s seen as something that can be cut.”

Derrico and others fear that cutbacks in staff training might provide some bars with short-term savings at the expense of a long-term gain. Monetary savings now, they say, will be lost in the future through higher staff turnover and associated new employee training costs, as well as a less productive, less knowledgeable staff.

Many bar executives are doing what they can to convince members of the importance of staff training and development. Many are also becoming creative in ways to offer low-cost education and training opportunities for their staff.

While financial times ahead appear precarious, bar executives hope that staff training and development doesn’t suffer at a time when members might need more help from staff to help navigate the potential unpredictability that lies ahead.

Short-term budget cuts, long-term consequences

Dealing with tight budgets and looking for places to trim is a seemingly continuous theme for many nonprofit associations, according to Bob Skelton, chief administrative officer of the American Society of Association Executives. A recent ASAE study found that nonprofit associations typically spend 2.5 to 3 percent of payroll annually on staff training, a figure that appears to be holding steady, he says.

Still, he adds, “There seems to be more ‘noise’ lately about how we keep doing this. From a practical perspective, learning never ends, so it would seem that any organization would want to invest in continuing education for their staff.”

And in many cases, bar associations do make the investment, Derrico says. Attendance at the last several Annual and Midyear meetings of the National Association of Bar Executives has been particularly strong, she says, as well as at NABE section and forum meetings and ABA events such as the Bar Leadership Institute in Chicago each March.

But recent operational surveys of state and local bar executives by the Division for Bar Services have also revealed growing concern about the type and amount of training and staff development that is being funded by bar leadership. Many execs say a greater commitment is needed.

“Bars are, overall, supportive of professional development [among higher-level staff], but my sense is that it’s more midlevel and administrative staff who are not getting the training, especially in the area of technology,” Derrico says. “The reality is that the first two areas to get cut first in the budget are travel and training.”

Staying technologically savvy is of particular concern to nonprofits such as bar associations, Skelton says, since the rapid pace of change in the field often makes previous IT training and discussion obsolete within two years.

Speaking of technology, bars should be cautious about how they use technology to deliver staff training, warns personnel and human resources consultant Judy Clark. Over the last few years, she has seen many companies offer more electronic training via podcasts, DVDs, and other media.

“It allows organizations to believe that they’re still committing resources to training. They don’t seem to consider how much is learned through face-to-face interaction,” says Clark, founder and chief executive officer of HR Answers, Inc., Tualatin, Ore. “It’s lousy for things about understanding people, developing supervisors and managers, and for understanding workplace dynamics.”

Clark is also worried about the effects of the impending retirements of the baby boom generation, as a wave of workers takes a wealth of information out the door without sharing that knowledge face to face with younger employees.

“In many cases, they haven’t mentored, they haven’t set up shadowing, and they haven’t set up formalized training in any way,” she says. “We are going to have shortages, and we’re going to have to build things from the ground up.”

Making the case for training

A challenge for bar executives as they seek more staff development opportunities is the need to identify and explain the personal, professional, and monetary benefits of such opportunities to members.

“It’s incumbent upon management to report back to the board with deliverable [results]. It’s about showing them the value of training and development,” says Colleen McManus, senior director of human resources for the State Bar of Arizona. “We’ve been able to demonstrate where we’re saving the organization money.”

For example, the professional certified public accounting training that the SBA’s accounting director received via the bar paid dividends through the clean audit that the bar received this year, she says.

At the Massachusetts bar, the lower turnover rate translated into reduced costs for hiring and training new employees, while leading to improved services for bar members, Wellington says.

“My job is to educate the board members on the needs of the operation. It’s not just salary, but it’s training, it’s benefits, and it’s a quality of work life,” she says. “Even in weak budget times, I’m confident that my board will see this as a part of doing business. Your staff is your biggest asset.”

Denny Ramey has been at the Ohio State Bar Association for more than 28 years—and he’s not the longest-tenured employee there. A pervasive and committed management approach to staff training and development is a prime reason why turnover is so low, says Ramey, the bar’s executive director.

“We send people to the NABE section [meetings], the Midyear, the Annual, and to the ASAE,” he notes. “You want to keep people fresh? The secret is to keep them engaged in the direction of the association. A lot of people know what the culture and philosophy are here.”

And that doesn’t just mean the executive staff, he adds. He regularly invites the bar’s support staff to lead discussions on the bar’s purpose, and to help set overall bar goals for the year ahead.

Involving all staff in development is also important to Scott Furkin, who became executive director of the Louisville (Ky.) Bar Association last year.

“The NABE meetings are usually in pretty fun places, and it’s really kind of a perk for staff,” he says. “If it’s only the executive director going to these things, the staff feels kind of stuck. [Attending] makes them feel valued, and to have people invest in their careers is good.”

Chris Manos, executive director of the State Bar of Montana, agrees that staff appreciates the training—which means opportunities for staff to attend conferences and seminars must be looked at and distributed carefully. “You have to make sure you’re fair about it,” he says. “The staff notices it. There is that jealousy.”

Along with training for other staff, many say it’s important that executive directors not pass themselves over when it comes to learning. When Judy A.C. Edwards, executive director of the Multomah (Ore.) Bar Association, told her board of directors that she—as a nonlawyer—needed help understanding her lawyer members, the bar hired a professional coach for her.

“I worked one-on-one with the coach, and he helped me with my own communication style and how to communicate and understand things better,” she says. “My board members were the ones who encouraged me.”

Keep your goals in mind

Whether it be training and education opportunities for bar executives or for other staff, most execs and experts agree that support from the top—both financial and moral—is vital to continued successful staff development. And one of the best ways to make a case for that support is for bar execs to talk with and observe staff on a regular basis to gauge their wants and needs.

“Survey your staff: ‘What skills do you need that you’re not getting?’ ” Clark suggests. “Find out where the gaps are and then prioritize.” For larger organizations, she recommends easy-to-use software such as Survey Monkey or Zoomerang to get immediate information and ideas from employees.

The ability to take the time to step back, review those needs, and then develop plans for better staff development is key, says the ASAE’s Skelton. “A lot of [nonprofit] organizations have this issue because they focus internally. That’s where your job is. But to take care of your members, you also need to take care of yourself and your staff.”

Many bars, Derrico agrees, lose sight of the long-term goal of consistently good service to members for the sake of meeting tight budget numbers. “As employees get the training and other things that they need, they become valuable to the association, and to the members,” she says.

Having a commitment to education and staff development is also important to attracting and retaining good employees who might otherwise seek out higher paying jobs in the private sector, she and others say. Additionally, younger bar members are themselves more likely to get such job development, and thus expect that the staff at their bar association is similarly trained.

“Professionals need good quality training in the same way that lawyers look to their bar for their CLE requirements,” McManus says. “Many job applicants view training and development as part of their benefits package.” The Arizona bar recently made a significant hire by providing the applicant with a dedicated amount of training and development funding, she says.

Affordable ways to train

But as any bar exec who has participated in the budget process is likely to say, there still needs to be a balance between staff development and available funding. For many bars, that means finding creative and sometimes unusual ways to save time, money, and resources while also maintaining and enhancing staff development.

The State Bar of Montana, like many bars, takes advantage of local resources by having local police and fire instructors come in and train bar staff on security, safety, and disaster preparedness issues. Manos also works with staff to determine which conferences or seminars are worth attending, and which ones aren’t.

“It’s a dollars and cents commitment, so you can’t send people every year, to every meeting, beyond what’s really important,” he says. He also asks staff members who attend a conference or meeting to come to the next staff meeting and share what they learned with the rest of the staff.

At the Arizona bar, McManus often brings in guest instructors on an in-kind basis, offering education to other organizations in exchange. The bar also has a yearly dedicated training and development fund, which is used to supplement training funds in each department. Employees may apply to a bar executive committee for up to $1,000, she says.

Some local and regional bars also turn to their neighbors for help. In New York state, staff members from the Erie, Monroe, and Onondaga county bars meet each summer and often jointly bring in speakers to help them with issues such as marketing and member services.

While it’s important that some training be delivered face to face, there is a lot to be learned by connecting with peers online or taking advantage of other technological opportunities. The ASAE, among other organizations, offers webinars and Listservs to bring members together to share information. “There really is a lot of free information available,” Skelton says. NABE members, too, are usually quick to note how much they learn from that organization’s Listservs.

Employee cross-training is an economical way not only to prepare for unexpected events such as death, illness, and disasters, but also to provide another skill to employees who might be looking at other opportunities in the organization.

“This organization could go months without me here, without missing a beat,” Ramey says. “Everybody kind of works with everybody else here. It’s a process where everybody is in the same boat.”

To many bar leaders, finding the right balance between staff development and funding is a constant challenge. Ultimately, the hope is to provide the services that bar members want and expect from their bar, while also meeting the training and development needs of staff.

At the Massachusetts bar, the training and staff development emphasis is not just being noticed by the staff themselves, Wellington says; as staff members learn and grow, they become more and more competent and confident in delivering member service. “Some of the board members are seeing the staff more and more, and they like to see that,” she says. “The long-term benefits, I think, are huge.”


When Dena Woelfling became the first paid employee of the 110-member Lebanon County (Pa.) Bar Association last February, her title was administrative assistant. But after attending the NABE Small Bar Conference a few months later, that changed.

“I do exactly what an executive director does, so I changed my title,” says Woelfling, the bar’s part-time E.D., and still its only employee. “I learned a lot from those leaders when I was there. I still look at my portfolio of information for help.”

Thanks to a supportive board of directors, Woelfling not only attended the Small Bar Conference, but she has her sights set on other similar learning opportunities in the future.

Even when it’s a staff of one, smaller bars can profit from giving those staff members training and learning opportunities, leaders say. It is especially important, they add, for first-ever execs such as Woelfling, and bars with a short staff history, such as the Lebanon County bar, as they struggle to upgrade bar operations—often on tight budgets.

While professional training and development are important, execs at many small bars find that simply talking to each other, as well as their larger bar brethren, can be just as helpful, at a fraction of the cost. It’s a sharing and caring attitude that can help small bars grow both in numbers, and in the services they offer their members.

Making connections

“It’s unbelievable. I believe our bar has jumped ahead by leaps and bounds,” says Loreen Burkett, the immediate past president of the Lebanon County bar, who spearheaded the move to hire Woelfling. “We actually have someone with a calendar who can organize things for us.”

As membership in the bar moved past 100 in the last few years, the need for at least a part-time staff person to take on duties being handled by a variety of bar members became more evident, Burkett recalls. As the bar’s board of directors discussed the need, they also knew that training and developing the staff person would be key, she adds.

As a former legal secretary for a local lawyer and real estate title subcontractor, Woelfling was familiar with the law, but she needed some guidance as she took over organizing the bar’s functions. She also faced the task of finding a permanent home for an operation that traditionally moved from one bar president’s law office to the next.

In addition to the NABE Small Bar Conference, which brings together ABA staff and NABE leaders from bars of all sizes, along with execs from many small bars, Woelfling also attended a statewide bar conference, where she made contacts with other nearby small bars. One of those bars, the Franklin County Bar Association, has served as a model for the Lebanon County bar.

Woefling says she talks regularly with the Franklin County bar’s executive director, Carolyn Seibert-Drager, as well as Evelyn Sullivan, the veteran executive director of the nearby but larger Lancaster Bar Association. “I ask a lot of questions,” she laughs.

In just a few months, she has put her budding knowledge and background in the law and public relations to use, establishing a legal referral service and the bar’s first Web site ( She has also been active in organizing more CLE events, Law Day activities, and a Law Explorer program for teens, as well as finding a permanent office for the bar.

Leaders show their commitment

A regional small-bar network of sorts has also been important in northern Virginia for Teri Reece, the first-ever executive director of the Fredericksburg Area Bar Association, and Alissa Hudson, the first E.D. of the neighboring Prince William County Bar Association. They share information and ideas with each other, as well as nearby larger associations in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax, Va.

“It’s important to develop relationships with surrounding bars, even if they’re large,” says Hudson, who has held her 20-hour-a-week post at the 400-member bar for eight years. “It’s wonderful to chat with people about membership and services. There isn’t a lot of time, so you have to find your resources where you can.”

A full-time paralegal who works about 25 hours a month for the 300-member Fredericksburg bar, Reece says that in addition to the help from other area bars, the support of bar leaders in Fredericksburg has been critical to her development. After just a few months on the job, the bar authorized her to attend not only the NABE Small Bar Conference in St. Louis last June, but also the NABE Annual Meeting, which was in San Francisco in August.

“It was extremely beneficial to me,” she notes. “It was great to network and to get ideas.”

She has put that knowledge and networking to use, introducing Law Day and CLE activities to the bar. She was also recognized for achievement by the Virginia State Bar for launching the successful program, “Reuniting Bar Members as a Community,” a series of professional and social functions that has been part of the bar’s resurgence.

With encouragement and backing from her leadership, Hudson attended the first NABE Small Bar Conference in 2006. “I came back with so much new information. It was so exciting,” she says. “[The members] benefited so much from what I learned there.”

She also recently attended a bar leadership institute at the Virginia State Bar, where she made a presentation. Still, Hudson knows there are limits. She plans on attending the Small Bar Conference every other year.

Training pays dividends

Despite dealing with somewhat limited budgets and time, Hudson and other execs at small bars plan to continue using the resources and training available to them to grow their bars and the services they offer to members. Hudson recently hired the Prince William bar’s second employee to work up to 10 hours a week to handle intake for a busier lawyer referral service, now in its second full year.

In the coming year, Hudson hopes to use her knowledge and resources to add more CLE and to continue promoting the LRS. She also hopes to expand her efforts to increase nondues revenue. During her tenure, she has reduced revenues from dues from 99 to 45 percent—all while increasing services.

In Fredericksburg, Reece plans on beefing up the presence of bar members in the community, along with helping the bar’s committees become more active and organizing more opportunities to bring members together.

In the short-term, Woelfling is looking forward to expanding the bar’s fledgling LRS, as well as outside CLE events for members. In the long-term, while she is happy that the Lebanon County bar has a dedicated office, she and her board are intent on purchasing their own building to expand the bar’s community presence.

Woelfling also has some educational goals of her own in mind, such as a trip to the ABA Bar Leadership Institute in Chicago and a conference for Pennsylvania bar leaders.

“[The members] say they’re pleased with what’s been happening,” she says. “This is the kind of job I love to do.”