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Vol. 36, No. 1

Ohio’s metro bars: Three new executive directors, a strong partnership

by Marilyn Cavicchia

For nearly 20 years, the bar associations of Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton have shared resources and expertise in a number of ways, including designing joint CLE programming, securing member benefits, and speaking as one voice in statewide matters that affect the profession.

In such a tight-knit group, it seems significant that three of the six bars in the Ohio Metropolitan Bar Association Consortium now have fairly new executive directors. There will soon be a fourth new face; in February, Trish Branam plans to retire as executive director of the Toledo Bar Association.

Bar Leader recently spoke with the three relative newcomers to learn about the state of their bar associations, their transition into leadership, and how they benefit from working together.

David Watson, executive director of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association since 2010

When Watson became executive director of the CMBA, the bar association was relatively new, too—it had been just three years since the merger of the Cleveland Bar Association and the Cuyahoga County Bar Association.

After working with LexisNexis for 10 years and also practicing law, Watson spent three years as deputy executive director for the Defense Research Institute, in Chicago. He then moved to the Commercial Law League of America, where he was executive director for five years. After two years as a licensed financial planner at Edward Jones Investments, he moved back to Cleveland—where he was born and raised and went to law school—and back into the legal arena. The CMBA job was what lured him to become what he calls “a proud boomerang.”

Watson believes bar staff should be able to venture new ideas, even if not all of them work out so well. “Once success is achieved, we celebrate that success,” he says. “If we make mistakes, we take the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and grow as an organization in working to avoid making the same mistake twice.”

Ohio’s economy, and Northeast Ohio’s in particular, have suffered in recent years with the decline of what were once thriving industries. Watson sees some bright spots for the local legal profession, though: While some large firms have frozen their hiring, he says, many small and medium-sized firms have not. In line with a nationwide trend, Watson also says many new or recent law grads are considering going solo for at least the short term, as a way of tiding themselves over. The bar’s Young Lawyers Section is thriving, he adds, and the whole bar stands ready to help members navigate the changing legal environment.

That’s a role local bars in general are well positioned to play, he believes; as technology advances and as nonlawyers venture into territory that was once lawyers’ domain, he says, the CMBA and other local bars should tailor their CLE offerings accordingly.

“Teaching lawyers the value of appropriate marketing and client management will allow our members to respond to these market challenges,” he notes.

Donnie Long, executive director of the Akron Bar Association since 2008

As a manager, Long says, he strives to create an environment that fosters creativity, enthusiasm, development of knowledge and skills, and above all, teamwork.

Long worked first in counseling and education and considers those disciplines to be the roots of his current leadership approach. “My career path took me in a number of directions over the years,” he notes, “but I always consider myself a teacher, motivator, and coach—characteristics that heavily inform my management style.”

After serving in community mental health for several years, Long switched to an academic setting, working in student services and teaching psychology. From there, he became the director of education for the Dayton (Ohio) Area Board of Realtors and then started his own training and curriculum development company. His work in the bar association realm began in 2003 at the Cleveland Bar Association. He started as director of sections; by the time he left for the Akron bar, he’d added membership responsibilities, managed a variety of diversity initiatives, and was involved in development for the bar foundation.

Like many bars, the Akron Bar Association’s membership is skewing a bit older lately. That’s one reason the bar has established and maintained a strong relationship with its local law school. “We have a strong core of young members who really believe in the value of membership in the local bar because they experienced it as students,” Long notes.

The bar’s CLE offerings are strong, Long says, and include many programs about new technology. Long echoes Watson in his belief that targeted CLE is a particular strength for the Akron bar and others of its type. “I think this is where the local bar can really excel—by being nimble enough to respond quickly to specific issues and pressures in our legal community,” he says, “and, thus, really support the members in their daily practice.”

It’s not all about technology, he adds: Members value the bar’s “high touch” efforts, such as monthly receptions where they can reconnect with friends and colleagues in a casual environment.

Jill Snitcher McQuain, executive director of the Columbus Bar Association since 2010

“I am probably the world’s most vocal proponent for 101 alternative careers you can pursue with a law degree,” McQuain says. She entered law school with the intention of becoming a lobbyist, and started working for the CBA while still in school. After passing the bar exam, she moved to the bar’s ethics department.

After about five years there, she left to become executive director of the Ohio Association for Justice. “It was a step toward that lobbying career I had always worked for,” she recalls. “But it wasn’t long before I realized association operations were my strength and what I enjoyed most.”

McQuain came back to the CBA in 2007 as assistant executive director and was tapped for the E.D. position when Alex Lagusch retired. McQuain credits Lagusch as an excellent on-the-job mentor. “He’s taught me how to be self-motivating, experimental, encouraging, to let things take their course and be prepared for unexpected results,” she says. Some of the bar’s best ideas, she explains, have evolved differently from what was planned but have nonetheless developed into “something terrific.” Adapting as ideas change requires being nimble and involving people in the thought process, she adds.

McQuain agrees with Watson that success requires being willing to fail—without penalty. “I believe in giving everyone the opportunity to try new things and take a few risks,” she says. “And if we fail, we learn from the experience and move on.”

One new venture of which McQuain is particularly proud is an incubator program for new lawyers (see “Columbus bar tests program to help new law grads,” page 4, for more information). The CBA has also recently entered into a partnership to offer contract lawyer services to its members, which McQuain says will serve three purposes: providing more employment opportunities for its attorney members; allowing local law firms to keep their overhead down; and offering the bar a new source of nondues revenue.

McQuain calls the Ohio Metropolitan Bar Association Consortium “something of a comfort zone” because she knows she can call any one of the other metro bar directors to talk about anything, big or small—a resource that Long and Watson also appreciate.

“I truly can’t imagine it any other way,” McQuain says. “After all, we’re all in this together.”