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Vol. 36, No. 1

The effective president: An interview with the experts

by Kimberly Vann

If you are on the leadership track at a bar association, how soon should you start planning for your presidency? Where do you begin? How can the bar’s executive director help you?

“The Effective President,” at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute last March, answered those questions and more, as a panel of bar experts shared personal experiences and practical insights on preparing for a successful presidential year. Thomas A. Pyrz, executive director of the Indiana State Bar Association, moderated the panel that included Susan M. Holden, past president, Minnesota State Bar Association and Hennepin County Bar Association; Thomas L. Cuni, then-president, Cincinnati Bar Association; and John Phelps, executive director, State Bar of Arizona. Below are some highlights.

Pyrz: How do you begin preparing for your presidential year?

Cuni: First, I prepared for the year by deciding to devote a good deal of time to this project. Why be president, if you’re not going to enjoy it? Second, I made sure my partners understood what I had to do, and third, I read the rules and regulations of the bar association.

Holden: I spent quite a bit of time talking with other people who served in leadership positions of the bar association and with the bar’s staff. The executive director is going to be your greatest partner as you prepare to lead the bar, and will help you understand what is expected in your role as president. Once you’ve started the application process to become the leader of your bar, you should discuss it with your employer or your law firm, depending on your work setting. It’s going to take time away from your practice. You really need to communicate that with your partners, your staff, your clients, and your family.

Pyrz: How can a bar executive help a president-elect?

Phelps: I came onboard an organization that had a really great structure in place to prepare future bar presidents. By the time someone sits in the president’s chair, they’ve been on the officers’ track for five years. I’ve begun to have a close relationship with the officers as they progress through the ranks. Also, we initiate the committee appointments selection somewhat early. We have 26 committees, and our bar president appoints all those folks. It’s hundreds of folks. Getting that information in front of the president-elect before he or she takes office is another way we engage.

Pyrz: How do you keep from stepping on the toes of the sitting president while working with the president-elect?

Phelps: We have five officers who work as a team. There’s always conversation about where we’re headed as an organization. Last year, the board approved a five-year strategic plan. That provides some basic strategic direction on which everyone can agree. The officers are in frequent communication. We have a formal meeting at least on a monthly basis, sometimes on a daily basis. I haven’t seen a situation yet where there’s competition between the incoming and current president.

Pyrz: Let’s talk about executive director relationships.

Cuni: John [Norwine, executive director, Cincinnati Bar Association] and I have known one another for 30 years. That actually helped me, because he had been executive director for many years, prior to my coming to the bar. The bar association has a lot of procedures set in place to make this a smooth transition. We talked about the various ways to communicate. Email, of course, would be used for administrative functions: Can you do this? Can you be there? Can you have this scheduled? Conference calls would be arranged for more substantial business.

The thing that was rather helpful was John’s tradition of meeting with me before the bar meetings. If I couldn’t get there early, I’d call him about 30 minutes before the meeting and we’d go through the agenda. That truly helped me move the meeting along and end on time. The meetings were much more efficient.

Pyrz: How does it work with the bar presidents?

Holden: I developed a rapport with the executive director [of the MSBA], Tim Groshens, that was very important to me during my year as president. He and I agreed on a standing meeting weekly. We spent a couple of hours together at the same time each week and made sure things were progressing. That eliminated extra phone calls and email communication. The other thing we did was get our support staff together. Key staff members in my office knew the key staff members in Tim’s office. That allowed us to be a little more efficient.

Phelps: Our current president [then Alan P. Bayham Jr.] comes over a couple times a week. He has a standing schedule where he spends a couple of hours in the office. We meet in the morning and review activities. For another bar president, we had a breakfast meeting every other week that was set on the calendar. Also, we have a dedicated staff person who does nothing but take care of the president. He is the go-to person for our president and officers.

Pyrz: How do you keep the communications channel open, especially during emergencies?

Holden: Today, with technology, we’re all pretty accessible. If you’re carrying a BlackBerry or other smartphone, you can get alerts, texts, emails, and phone calls. There’s only a few brief times when you could not be accessible, like when you’re in a courtroom. My rule with Tim was, “Call me anytime. I don’t care what day of the week it is or what hour of the day.”

Pyrz: How do you deal with the staff?

Cuni: I’m a big believer that the bar executive should run the organization. However, I deal with the communications director for my column and with the finance director regarding finances. Anything else, I would go to the executive director. It’s all transparent. It’s all disclosed. The board hired this person to run this organization and they should run it.

Phelps: I think we have a traditional protocol where if a president or a board member wants to address an issue, he or she will bring it to me first. However, my staff are empowered and licensed to deal directly with the president and other officers. They just need to let me know about it, so I can be in the loop. There is one small caveat—if they’re looking for a decision from the president about anything significant, they need to bring that to me first, so I can make sure that it is properly positioned.

Pyrz: What about your president’s pages?

Holden: I thought about those while I was here at the BLI. It was a great opportunity for me to spend a little time focusing on what I’d like as leader of my bar association, thinking about the issues that are important to the profession. One of the things that I did at the BLI was make a list of topics, so that if I was pressed for a column topic and needed some ideas, I could go back to my BLI notes and write about it. I didn’t have to refer to that list very often, however, because once you get into your term, things happen. When you become president, what you face during your term, what you do, and how you spend your time is often not what you planned. That will be reflected in your columns.