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Vol. 33, No. 2

“The Times They Are a-Changin’ ”

by Michelle A. Behnke

The old adage, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” applies now more than ever. As the economic landscape continues to show signs of a recession or a slowdown (the word choice often depends on the speaker’s political affiliation), lawyers and bar associations are facing some challenges. Most of us understand that standing around waiting for better days is not a viable option.

Some associations, particularly voluntary associations, are seeing fluctuations in their membership numbers. Unified bars, by their nature, will not see such direct changes, but may receive more requests for dues waivers based on hardship or changes in membership from “active” status if their dues structures are related to practice status.

Even if associations do not experience such changes, they will likely hear from members about changes in their practices, especially the need to shift professional focus (e.g., to bankruptcy or foreclosure). In these tough times, the question from members may well become “what have you done for me lately?” Bar associations themselves may face financial strain. Finding ways to do more with less has always been a never-ending goal. How does the association serve its members and the public with shrinking resources?

No matter where they are located, all bar associations are under pressure to serve members and the public as the nation navigates rough economic seas. They must shift and address these issues quickly, regardless of what plans might have been in place for the year. Likewise, bar leaders must help their associations to rise to the occasion. Bar leaders must listen especially carefully to the challenges confronting members because meeting those needs is at the heart of the bar’s work and the essence of good leadership. Helping the association meet the challenges and shift nimbly in new directions is what provides value to the association’s membership.

Good bar associations are trying to figure out how to help their members keep afloat in these tough times while at the same time planning how to keep the association going as lawyers cut back on volunteer time, books, and other products and services offered by bars. Because service to members and the public is at the heart of what almost every bar association does, bars are searching for new ways to support the needs of their members and respond to the public. Great bar associations may already have forecasted these trends as part of their strategic planning processes and shifted gears to implement strategies and objectives accordingly.

Some bar associations are assessing their CLE offerings and finding ways to provide education in areas of substantive law so that lawyers can “brush up” or get started in an area that is currently in demand. Others are turning their training efforts toward helping lawyers manage their practice challenges (e.g., closing or selling a practice). Still other bars are reaching out to the public and providing direct information on issues like foreclosure and bankruptcy. The ABA as well is focused on helping lawyers in challenging times. The ABA Board of Governors Program and Planning Committee held a forum on “Helping Lawyers in Their Profession” at the annual meeting in New York and is reviewing products and services that will help lawyers work more effectively and efficiently.

In the following pages, you will read about what some associations are doing to meet the economic challenges. What are they doing to keep the ship afloat while improving efficiency or cutting expenses? What new programs are associations undertaking to help members deal with the economic realities? What public education programs are taking off in light of the mortgage loan crisis? We would like to hear from you about any problems that you think your colleagues in other bar associations would be interested in.

Michelle A. Behnke

Michelle A. Behnke is chair of the Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services.