“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”
In the past month, has something crossed your desk or dropped into your in-box that made you, as a bar executive or officer, exclaim, “But that’s what we do!”?
Competition for the attention and the allegiance of your members is heightening every day.
Sure, your bar offers members unique opportunities to gather together to discuss substantive issues, to socialize, and to gain recognition, and at the same time advance the profession. Everybody loves your bar because you provide access to free legal research. Your electronic publications, website, and print publications keep you in touch with members, and vice versa.
Guess what? Any one of those assumptions about your bar’s value to members—perhaps every one of them—is being challenged. Maybe not directly, maybe not intentionally, maybe not today, or tomorrow, but soon.
Unified or voluntary, large or small, bar associations of any size or shape need to be concerned about staying relevant to their members. That challenge is even more daunting in an era of rapid change.
Three law practice management advisers—Jim Calloway of the Oklahoma Bar Association, Erik Mazzone of the North Carolina Bar Association, and Rodney Dowell of the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program—spend their time advising lawyers how to stay competitive. At the most recent Annual Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives in San Francisco, this trio turned their attention to the competitive challenges bar associations face.
Their insights were sobering, provocative, and sometimes terrifying. But they also offered a number of suggestions bars can consider to take advantage of their distinctive and unique relationships with the legal community to remain relevant to members.
As many association executives and elected leaders realize, there’s lots of competition for the attention and volunteer time of today’s lawyers. But even more disturbing, various websites, voluntary organizations, and private companies also are devising ingenious ways to serve attorneys’ needs and interests.
Not all of this competition is intentional or mercenary. For example, over the years, state and local bars—and bar organizations such as NABE—have partnered well with the ABA. This strong partnership continues. But as you might have noticed, the ABA has lately been sharpening its focus on providing value to members—particularly the solo and small-firm lawyers who for years have tended to join state and local bars and not the ABA. Expect to see the ABA offering more free or discounted CLEs, community-building forums, and law practice management tools. This is a smart move—but one that does perhaps bring the association into closer competition with state and local bars.
Whether by design or not, competitive efforts can be seen as invasions onto the traditional turf of state and local bars as conveners of the legal community. Does anyone doubt that such incursions will occur more often in years to come?
Threats here and on the horizon
First, here’s a brisk sampling of trends and services that pose competitive threats or challenge the official and unofficial missions of bar associations:
· Free CLE. This is now being offered by any number of providers that desire visibility in the attorney marketplace. Vendors to the legal community, law firms seeking referrals, law schools, other professional associations—you name it. The means of delivering and advertising these programs are getting easier, faster, and cheaper.
· Legal wikis, forms banks, and expertise sharing. While the world embraces stereotypes of ultracompetitive lawyers, bar associations are familiar with the communitarian urge of many lawyers to share their expertise with colleagues via Listservs, section or committee activities, and other forums. That urge to share is no longer confined to bar-sponsored forums. Shareware legal forms, document banks, and collaborative websites or “wikis” offer many options, often for free. One example, Spindlelaw.com, one NABE panelist said, “is reinventing the legal treatise,” by offering dozens of “wikis” on various legal writing tasks. Tools for collaboration will get better and better, regardless of whether they are offered by bar associations or by a multifaceted website launched by freeware-minded, Web-savvy lawyers who use their off hours to run collaborative websites.
· Free legal research. The much-heralded member benefit for state bars in the last decade was free legal research, with Casemaker and Fastcase the most well known among them. Guess what? Your members won’t be so bowled over by that benefit much longer. The value of that benefit is diminishing as access to caselaw, statutes, and secondary sources is rapidly moving from a low-priced commodity to being available at no cost. Google Scholar is the handwriting on the wall.
· Lawyer referral services. It’s no news to anyone running a lawyer referral program that these programs are competing for clients with a variety of legal referral services and directories. Quality ratings, snazzy interfaces, celebrity pitchmen—for-profit lawyer referral sites are pulling out all the stops to get to clients first. Totalattorneys.com, for example, offers free CLE to its panelists.
· Affinity group benefits. Website organizations, specialty bars, and other organizations are adding benefits to their menus. Maybe these aren’t deal-breakers, but such sweeteners can weaken allegiance to your bar.
· Virtual gathering places. Membership sites such as myshingle.com, Solo Practice University, and Lawyerist.com provide access to high-quality, disinterested law practice management advice and support. Just what you provide, right?
· Specialty and/or virtual bar associations and gatherings. Lawyers, just like everybody else, are forming niche groups at the click of a mouse. Virtual groups hold conferences that offer focused networking and expertise sharing that your one-size-fits-all bar can’t offer, and if they are successful, maybe their next step is a real meeting in a real place—more competition for your members’ time and their meeting dollars.
Is there something missing from this list? Whatever it is, don’t feel safe. Someone, somewhere outside your bar is probably already offering it.
Don’t lose hope yet. First, bar associations aren’t irrelevant today. They still occupy a prominent and distinctive role in the legal community. A vigorous, active bar association is still in touch with its lawyers like no other entity. But even the best bar associations will lose that advantage if they are not willing to take a fresh look at what they offer, how they offer it, and how quickly the bar responds to the changing needs of members. Many of these suggestions will take bars into new areas of activity, with unforeseen risks and issues. But don’t let obstacles obscure worthy goals.
Rethinking what bar associations do
Here’s a sampling of ideas for staying relevant and keeping up with the competition, whoever they are:
· Create an incubator. What can your bar do to provide assistance for individual lawyers who are forced to start their own practices instead of hiring on with another lawyer? Mentoring, low-cost office space—these can be things your bar can offer.
· Make an app for your bar. Find ways to bring the services of your bar to the mobile format.
· Use RSS feeds to create content for your app. As an example, see the ABA’s practice management-themed PMA Pipe. If you don’t know what that is, visit http://tinyurl.com/25awnod to see how one bar uses it, and direct your bar’s IT staff to http://tinyurl.com/2tkl3k to incorporate it into your Web page or app. You probably are already creating great content for your website. Put additional effort into pushing that great information out to your members, or potential members.
· Teach lawyers how to get clients. Whether or not it qualifies for CLE credit, improving the bottom line is something most lawyers need to do and want to do.
· Give them clients. Reinvigorate your lawyer referral program. What does it need in order to be more successful at obtaining clients for members? Find out.
· Create a strategic plan. Shift the focus from defining who you are to what you want—and need—to become to suit your members’ needs.
· Offer practice management software as a member benefit. What practice tools do your members need? If you are a state bar, you are in a perfect position to develop and distribute state-specific practice tools. You’ve never been in the software business? Put that objection aside—would creating such tools fit into your mission in supporting and serving your members? Is there a ready market among your members for software that addresses certain issues? If your bar does not create it, then who will?
· Member photos in every publication. Everybody loves pictures. Make your bar more closely knit by featuring more members in your publication and on your website.
· Provide party pictures. Put ALL of your event pics on the website, not just the ones you feature in your print publication. Make them downloadable, too, and watermarked with the bar’s logo.
· Member picture party. Here’s another photo-related tip: Arrange for a free reception in a courtroom where members can get professional photos taken. Get additional mileage from this event by having attendees pose for stock photos you can then use for your publication.
· Ad-supported continuing legal education. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Solicit a sponsor for a free CLE.
· Administer CLE for other providers. Become a CLE back-end provider. Give your members the ability to offer CLE, and split the revenue.
· Host a virtual conference. Here’s an example—a Web conference for lawyers who are starting firms. (Thanks to the North Carolina Bar Association for this “startup boot camp” idea.)
· Form business networking groups. Assist your members in developing their practices. Be more flexible in fostering the creation of niche groups within your bar.
· Offer accounting software as a member benefit. And also offer trust accounting software. Perhaps bars need to consider being in the business of providing members with tools to administer trust accounting competently.
In general, think, “What is it that we do that can’t be replicated by the Internet?” Perhaps you can come up with a way to enhance that service and build on your unique advantage.
“Don’t sit on your laurels,” advised Rodney Dowell. “We have to move forward to create [or recreate] strong communities to provide what our lawyers need.”