chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
Vol. 36, No. 1

Is there an app for your bar? Should there be?

by Dan Kittay

Editor’s note: This topic was the subject of much discussion at the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives, in Toronto this August. The author spoke at a workshop during which several attendees said they planned to look into developing apps for their bar associations. We will follow up in a future issue; if your bar is considering developing an app and you would like to be included in the follow-up article, please contact Dan Kittay at [email protected].


While it seems that in many parts of life, there truly is “an app for that,” in the bar association world, there is not yet a consensus over whether apps for mobile devices are necessary for bars to have—and if they are, which form they should take.

There’s no doubt that an increasing number of lawyers are using smartphones, such as the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android-based devices. And more tablet computers, such as the iPad, Xoom, and PlayBook, are showing up in courtrooms, law offices, and CLE seminars.

Bar associations want to be relevant to their members and to provide member services where lawyers most need them. So if members are using devices that rely on apps to deliver information and entertainment, shouldn’t bars be creating those apps?

Talks with staff from small, medium, and large bars show a range of opinions, and a number of obstacles to simply telling members where they can download the latest bar-sponsored app.

What is an app, anyway?

First, a few definitions. App is short for application. Applications, in turn, are software programs that run on computers and perform certain tasks; they include spreadsheet programs and word processors. But in the age of mobile computing, an app is generally understood to be something that runs on a mobile platform, while an application runs on the desktop.

There are two kinds of apps: native and Web-based. Native apps are those you buy from an online app store and load onto your mobile device. They are written specifically for the type of device you’re using and are not interchangeable with apps written for other types of mobile devices. An app that runs natively on the iPhone would not run on an Android-based device unless it were rewritten in the language that Android devices run on.

Web-based apps are actually websites that are designed to work well with a range of mobile devices. They use programming languages that all such devices can read, and in many ways can be made to look like native apps.

One advantage to native apps is that they can take advantage of all of the interface features that a particular phone or platform offers. They also can be run regardless of whether the user is connected to the Web.

For Web apps, the advantages include that they only require the bar to create one app, and they are generally less expensive to develop.

So the two questions bars face are whether to build apps, and if so, which kind to build. Opinions vary.

Should you optimize instead?

“The most important goal for a bar association is to have its website’s pages optimized for members who want to access them on their phones,” says Jim Calloway, director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program, and a longtime observer of bar associations and their use of technology.

Optimizing the site means making the pages look good and function well in the built-in Web browsers that smartphones and tablets have, as opposed to developing a native or Web-based app.

Calloway says that it is still too early in the smartphone era to know which platforms will emerge as dominant players for the long haul. “Most bar associations don’t have the resources to develop apps for several mobile phone platforms, and then to update them as there are advances,” he believes.

Even given the resources, Calloway isn’t sure what apps could bring to members that having an optimized site doesn’t. “If you could allow someone to do in an app on their phone everything they could do on your website, I could see where some people might find that attractive,” he says. “But since we have access to our websites through browsers on the phones, it’s hard to see where having an app really improves on that.”

Taking the plunge

Other bars believe they have content that is best presented in an app. The New York State Bar Association is developing a native app that will contain its 851 ethics opinions, says Rich Martin, the bar’s senior director of marketing and information services. The app will have versions in iOS (iPhone and iPad), BlackBerry, and Android.

The impetus for the app came from immediate past NYSBA President Stephen P. Younger, who thought a searchable database of the opinions would be handy both for lawyers and the public, Martin says. Both have often expressed an interest in the opinions, he adds, and now they will be able to download the app for free.

As Martin and MIS Director John Nicoletta researched the process, they discovered that creating and distributing an app isn’t just as simple as deciding to do it. And there are other complications, even beyond having to make a different version for each platform. Martin and Nicoletta learned that Apple, which oversees the iOS platform, must approve every app that makes it into the App Store, which is the only legitimate way for most apps to be obtained. The same is true for updates to the app’s structure; new content can be added to the app without having to resubmit it.

The bar is thinking about developing more apps down the road, but Nicoletta says they may be Web-based, instead of native. Apps that rely on connecting to a website-based database, and that require user authentication, may be easier to develop as Web-based apps, since the user needs to have a Web connection to use them anyway.

Helena Henderson knows all too well about the complications of getting an app into Apple’s App Store. The New Orleans Bar Association executive director began the process of developing an iOS app that would help the bar promote functions such as CLE programs, meetings, and other events. The bar began by using a service that says it can help to easily build an app and, after some poor results, realized that she and the NOBA staff would need to be more involved.

The requirements of getting an app approved by Apple—which were evolving—coupled with the need for more involvement by her staff, convinced Henderson that the benefit of having the app would not outweigh the time and resources it would take to complete it. While she uses an iPhone and iPad, and sees their usefulness for lawyers and businesspeople in general, she thinks only bars with a lot of time and money to devote to the process should seriously consider getting involved.

The Florida Bar has decided to take the plunge, developing native apps for its Florida Bar News, says Francine Walker, director of public information and bar services. Member surveys showed high interest in mobile platforms. The app will be developed for iOS, BlackBerry, and Android. It will cost the bar a little more than $47,000 to develop the three versions, Walker says.

The bar considered creating a Web app instead, says Chief Information Officer Christopher E. Pollan. But those involved in the decision decided they preferred the look and feel of a native app to a Web-based one.

The ABA Journal has an iOS-based app that you can download through iTunes. ABA Journal for iPhone/iPad came to be when a staff member took a personal interest in programming and applied it to creating an app that allows users to see current and past articles, says Molly McDonough, deputy managing editor.

The app has led to more visits to the Journal’s website, she says. While there may be some updates to the app, and a possible Android version, McDonough hopes to focus attention on beefing up the magazine’s mobile website.

The Colorado and Denver bar associations had been considering developing a native app to use for promotional purposes to the public, says Heather Clark, director of communications and marketing for both bars. Research showed that the cost was too high, Clark says. The bars are now surveying members to see which technologies they use, and also are considering how best to optimize their website for mobile devices.