What are bars doing to help members cope with the ongoing economic crisis? Plenty—and many bars have more efforts under way.
The economy was a major underlying focus of the NABE/NCBP/NCBF Annual Meeting in Chicago this July and August, as leaders from across the country discussed what was happening in their locale and how they and their members were weathering the storm. One program that addressed the crisis head on was a panel discussion highlighting exemplary efforts at the Ohio State Bar Association, the South Carolina Bar, the Washington State Bar Association, the San Diego County Bar Association, and the Oregon State Bar.
OSBA: Free CLE on surviving the crash
The OSBA’s CLE program to help members survive the economic crisis was something of a gamble: In light of members’ financial struggles, it was important that the event be free. But could the bar itself handle a potential loss of $35,000 to $40,000 for those six free hours?
The bar moved ahead with its plan, said Barbara J. Howard, president, in the hopes that this members-only event would encourage enough renewals to offset some of the cost. And aside from dollars and cents, Howard said, it was important to show members that the OSBA knew what they were up against and wanted to help—even if it did mean a sizeable loss in revenue.
The bar hired a practice management expert named Dustin Cole to give the 1,200-plus preregistrants an intensive, nuts and bolts “master class” on the business of law. A live event was planned for January 28 in Columbus, to be simulcast in 13 locations around the state, with senior staff and board members on hand in each location.
And then, Howard said, a disaster of a different kind hit: a snow and ice storm that struck the entire state and in some areas became a level three emergency. More than 600 people managed to come anyway, she said, noting that one site had to close entirely. Those who had registered but could not attend because of the weather were able to access the materials later and will receive a free CLE session anytime this year, Howard said.
Thus far, she said, the cost in terms of lost revenue from offering the free CLE is just under $22,000, and this may increase as members who couldn’t attend continue to sign up for complimentary programs to make up for it. But the good news, she noted, is that while the bar had budgeted for a big membership drop, it is now within .3 per-cent of where it was last year—thanks in part, perhaps, to having reached out to members when they needed it most.
And that’s not all, Howard said; the OSBA learned something valuable that it was then able to put to use. At a certain point during the CLE, Cole wrapped up and the session became more of a town hall, during which members and bar leaders discussed how members were affected by the crisis and what the bar could do to help. Many members mentioned the rising cost of health insurance, Howard noted. Follow-up surveys prompted an enthusiastic response, especially among solos, to the idea of gathering together interested members and appealing to an insurance provider as a large group.
Bar leaders decided members would need to express interest in coverage for at least 1,000 people in order to achieve “critical mass” and be attractive to an insurance company. It turned out that there was interest in coverage for 3,200 people. As a result, the OSBA recently announced what Howard called “a fabulous program” to offer health insurance through the bar from MassMutual.
South Carolina Bar: Career Counsel site
Lawyers in South Carolina are feeling the pinch as much as anyone else, said Leah Johnson, assistant executive director at the South Carolina Bar. But for whatever reason, the mood is “very quiet,” she said, explaining that news of layoffs and hardship passes by word of mouth, but few lawyers come directly to the bar for help.
The bar’s need to help, coupled with lawyers’ desire for discretion, spurred the creation of its Career Counsel Web site (www.scbar.org/member_resources/career_counsel/). It only took a couple weeks to build the site, Johnson notes, since much of the material was free articles, tools, and videos that already existed and were gathered from around the bar or from the Internet. One good resource was YouTube for interview and job search training videos—but, Johnson cautioned, anything from YouTube should be carefully screened first, lest it take a turn you didn’t expect.
The site is organized by “scenario-based” categories, with content appealing, for example, to lawyers who have just been laid off, who are looking for a job, are preparing for an interview, or are interested in contract positions in order to balance work and family.
Many of those being laid off, Johnson said, went to a large firm straight out of law school perhaps 25 years ago and now have no idea what to do. Because they may have left firms that had LexisNexis access and now don’t know how to conduct legal research, the Career Counsel site promotes the fact that the bar offers Casemaker for free. Other bar programs and services that would be of use to a lawyer out of a job or starting a solo practice are also highlighted on the site.
In addition to the Career Counsel site, there has also been some programming to help lawyers revise their career plans, Johnson said. For example, she noted, real estate traffic on South Carolina’s tourism-heavy coast has “slowed way down,” so the bar wanted to help lawyers in real property find another area of practice—either permanently, or to tide them over until the crisis passes. The bar brought in lawyers from other areas of practice to “talk turkey about what they do,” Johnson said, noting that the discussion was helpful for law students, too.
For now, Johnson said, displaced lawyers seem most comfortable remaining anonymous and turning to the Career Counsel site for help, but she can imagine more in-person networking taking place as the crisis continues. The site has served as sort of a “light bulb” for members, she believes, and has likely prompted them to think of a lawyer they know who’s having a hard time and to give him or her a call.
WSBA: Groups for displaced lawyers
At the opposite end of the spectrum from lawyers in South Carolina is those in Washington state, who seem eager to share their stories and learn together. In fact, said Barbara Harper, director of the WSBA’s Lawyers Services Department, when the bar sent out an e-mail to all lawyers in the Puget Sound region to announce it would form a group for lawyers seeking jobs, seven responses came back in the first 15 minutes. Once the first group of 10 lawyers was formed, she added, there were 60 more on a waiting list. Each group meets for eight weeks; at press time, the sixth group had just started.
Harper’s department encompasses the lawyers assistance program, the law office management assistance program, and the office of professional responsibility. Since last year, she recalled, the bar’s LOMAP had received a lot of calls from displaced lawyers asking how to set up a law office. The bar has two psychologists on staff, Harper added, and they indicated, without divulging names, that members were reporting a lot of stress regarding job loss or not being able to find a job after law school.
The attitude that underlies the groups, Harper said, is, “Those jobs are out there. They’re just hard to find.” With that in mind, the discussions center on such topics as job hunt and interview strategies, cover letters and resumes, and “elevator speeches”—quick sound bites that tell others who the lawyer is and what he or she is looking for. Participants are asked to read three books: What Color Is Your Parachute? (Richard N. Bolles, Ten Speed Press), Never Eat Alone (Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Rahz, Broadway Business), and Ask the Headhunter (Nick A. Corcodilos, Plume).
The bar didn’t want those on the waiting list to be without any assistance, Harper said, so they receive a tip each week and are sent reminders of when a new group will be forming. Also, for more than 20 years, the bar has had a monthly job seekers’ group with guest speakers and job search tips. A lawyer need not have gone through the eight-week group to attend.
Attendance in the more formal groups has also helped displaced lawyers form new friendships and has spurred them to create their own informal coffee groups, Harper said; these groups are welcome to use rooms at the bar when available.
But it’s not just about socializing, Harper stressed: People really are finding jobs through the groups, or are meeting with LOMAP staff to learn about setting up their own practice. The public benefits from the groups as well, she noted; What Color Is Your Parachute? stresses the value of volunteering as a way to stay active and visible. The bar offers many service opportunities, including through the Home Foreclosure Legal Aid Project, which it launched recently in partnership with Northwest Justice Project (see “Lawyers and bars help homeowners facing foreclosure,” September-October 2009, page 20).
SDCBA: Networking and service opportunities
The SDCBA knows that perhaps now more than ever, many of its members are in private practice rather than large firms. To ease some of the isolation solo and small firm lawyers feel, the bar is focusing a lot of its efforts on networking, said President Jerrilyn T. Malana.
Ways the bar has helped lawyers in private practice have included a vendor fair featuring suppliers of products lawyers typically need, and an event that brought together bar members and members of the state’s association for certified public accountants. The CPA group would like to have another event in the fall, Malana said, noting that CPAs and other financial professionals recognize that lawyers are good business prospects for them, and enjoy a chance to meet them.
To best meet the needs of solo and small firm lawyers, who tend to be heavy users of law practice management tools, the bar recently combined its law practice management program and its solo and small firm section. The resulting Law Practice Management & Marketing Section offers a number of targeted resources, Malana said, including free audio materials offered in partnership with the ABA.
The bar is also helping members get up to speed so they can better help area residents who are facing foreclosure or seeking loan modification, Malana said. The SDCBA has offered CLE programming on foreclosure and the ethics involved in loan modification. It has collaborated on such programming with other bars in the area, Malana noted, and would like to partner with the local chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel as well.
The bar is also helping lawyers serve the community by partnering with an organization called the Housing Opportunities Collaborative. At weekend clinics two or three times a month, lawyers and lenders counsel homeowners regarding legal and financial matters. Lawyers are not to look for new clients at these clinics; if the person being counseled needs further legal assistance, the lawyer gives out a card for the bar’s lawyer referral and information service, and not for his or her firm. The clinics have drawn positive media attention, Malana noted, and some of the bar’s lawyer volunteers have been spotlighted. The local legal aid society also provides lawyer volunteers, she added.
The SDCBA is now up in membership from where it was last year because the bar is focused on bringing value to members, whether through networking, service opportunities, or other means, Malana said. But there’s another critical step, she noted: “You’ve got to tell them what value you bring.” Communication is key, she stressed, adding that one way the SDCBA gets the word out is a weekly e-blast in which the president talks about upcoming events and spotlights particular bar offerings.
Oregon State Bar: A variety of ways to help
The director of the Oregon State Bar’s lawyer referral service was getting a lot of calls from lawyers who were on the panel but weren’t getting enough business, said President Gerry Gaydos. Spurred by this and the knowledge that many consumers who didn’t qualify for legal aid found it tough to afford legal services they needed, the bar started a modest means program.
Many tests for whether a person qualifies as being of modest means include real estate as part of the overall income. The bar removed real estate from its evaluation, Gaydos said, since not many consumers would be willing or able to sell their home in order to pay for legal services. Making this adjustment has opened up the bar’s modest means programs to a lot more clients, Gaydos said, thereby drumming up a lot more business for lawyers who need it.
The bar has also recently strengthened its mentoring program, Gaydos said. As lawyers try to stay afloat, he explained, many are entering new areas of practice and find it helpful to talk with others who have relevant experience.
Through a separate entity established by the bar, called the Professional Liability Fund, there’s a practice management team that can help a lawyer set up a new practice or make an existing one more efficient. (Editor’s note: The PLF, created in 1977, is widely considered a model for its holistic approach to helping lawyers practice efficiently and well, and free from malpractice, disciplinary infractions, or untreated substance abuse and mental illness. It brings together under one “roof” mandatory malpractice insurance, lawyer assistance, and practice management assistance. For more information, visit www.osbar.org/plf/plf.html.)
There are also books available for free through the fund. A popular book among lawyers leaving big firms and setting up solo practices, Gaydos said, is one that covers how to establish and use a lawyer trust account. For older lawyers concerned about protecting their economic future, there’s a book about how to plan for retirement while making sure that clients are protected as well.