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Vol. 36, No. 4

Generations expert asks: Is your bar ready for X, Y ... and Z?

by Robert J. Derocher

Has your bar had a rough year or two? Or 12? If so, you’re not alone.

The 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s were boom times for membership organizations, said Sarah Sladek, CEO at XYZ University, a firm that teaches associations and other such groups about generational changes and how to prepare for and adapt to them. But the boom has now gone bust.

What happened? Sladek pointed to a few key events over the past decade or so. In 2000, she noted, the dot-com bubble burst. In 2001, there was 9-11. In 2008, the recession first hit. And 2011 was the start of a retirement wave, as the baby boomers—whose sheer numbers had significantly swelled the membership ranks once they reached professional age—began to exit the workforce in droves.

From now until 15 years from now, Sladek said, 10,000 people will retire each day. By 2015, she noted, Generation Y will outnumber baby boomers in the workforce. Exact timeframes vary, but Generation Y (aka the millennial generation) is often said to be made up of those born between the late-’70s or early ’80s and the mid- to late-’90s.

What does Generation Y want from a professional association? In a nutshell, what they want is a large, provable return on investment, said Sladek, who paraphrased their mindset as “If I’m going to give you any money, I’d better be getting something really exceptional in return.”

And if you’re thinking that “something” is networking—traditionally a mainstay for associations—think again; Gen Y, having grown up with technology from birth, is perfectly accustomed to networking online.

So, what can you offer them? Sladek thinks that’s for you to figure out; she shared some of her own thoughts and also provided some context and questions that might spark further discussion at your bar association.

A generation in need of help

Because of retirements, outsourcing, and layoffs, Sladek said, 15,000 law firm jobs have “vanished” since 2008. Meanwhile, around 43,000 JDs were granted each year (though the graduation rate may now be on the decline).

“You’re probably the only industry in this boat,” Sladek said. “Other industries fear that they have no talent pool. You have the talent pool, but no place to put them.”

For bar associations, this is both an opportunity and a challenge, Sladek said. Gen Y lawyers are “at a crossroads,” she noted, and “When people are looking for help, they turn to associations.”

It’s been said before, and Sladek said it again: The days when people joined something just to join are over. Now, she explained, people join in order to solve a set of problems they have—and they renew because you’ve helped them solve those problems and made them feel “engaged and positive.”

If your culture is one where the membership experience is neither positive nor focused on results, you’re headed for trouble, Sladek said. Many associations focus inward, she added: How many board members do we have? What issues do they need to “parse over” (in meetings that often last too long,
she noted)?

Now more than ever, she said, associations need to focus outward, on what members want and need. Members want to know how your bar can make their life better, how you can help their career, and what you do for the community, Sladek believes. They need all of the following, she said, stressing that these are necessities, not just afterthoughts:

· emotional connection;

· relevant, useful information;

· the ability to make a positive difference;

· to feel appreciated; and

· to belong.

As warm and fuzzy as those needs might sound, though, there’s an edge: Those in Gen Y want these things now, and you have to be able to prove to them that you can deliver, Sladek said. She suggested that bars ask themselves the following questions:

· What is our chief commodity?

· How can we provide extreme value and eliminate the competition?

· What is our niche?

· How do we do x better than anybody else?

· How does our association make a difference in members’ lives?

· What would happen if our association didn’t exist?

It used to be that you could fairly easily recruit a large number of members, and then that number would speak for itself and help you recruit even more members, Sladek said. But the Gen Y lawyer says, as Sladek put it, “I don’t care how large you are. I care about whether you’re the best.”

A five-step plan

Getting an idea of how to sharpen up what you offer in order to attract more members and give them more value does not have to be a complicated process, Sladek said. She suggested taking a single piece of paper and writing down some ideas in the following five areas:

Focus. How is it that your bar makes a difference in members’ lives?

2. Goal setting. Write down some “big, hairy, audacious goals” (that is, some things that would take some doing but that would put the bar in a much better place). What’s the bar’s five-year vision? Write down a date, five years out, and indicate in precise numbers what you want your membership number and revenues to be. Then do the same thing for one year out.

3. Marketing. What messages will help you explain what sets your bar apart? What benefits set it apart? How is it better than other organizations that compete for your potential members’ money and time? How is your bar the best?

4. Sladek shared some additional thoughts on marketing. If prospective members visit your bar’s website, she asked, what’s the first thing they see? Gen Y doesn’t want to hear about any of the following, Sladek said: networking, the bar’s history, or the bar’s mission. The first selling point, she reiterated, is “not a hot commodity anymore.” As for the latter two, as worthy as they are, a Gen Y lawyer will look at them and say, “Who cares?” Sladek believes.

5. “If I’m getting on this train,” she paraphrased, “I want to know that it’s taking me somewhere—not back
in time.”

6. Once you’ve answered some of those questions she mentioned, it can be very effective to put the marketing message in members’ voices, not yours; have members do testimonials and videos about how the bar has changed their lives for the better, she suggested.

7. Troubleshooting. What might get in the way of your new plan? Does the board not get along? Is your website five years old? Are there problems involving the staff? Write down the problems and some possible solutions.

8. Targeted progress. A year is too long to wait to check how you’re doing, Sladek said. Instead, track your progress every 90 days, she suggested; that way, you can adjust as needed throughout the year.

A closer look at X, Y, and Z

As for understanding your younger—and future—members, Sladek indicated that Generation Y has much in common with Generation X but that some factors are more intense for Y.

For example, Generation X grew up with Mr. Rogers on TV telling them, “You’re special.” Generation Y, meanwhile, is what Sladek called “the trophy generation.” That is, not only is everyone special, but everyone gets a trophy—just for showing up.

There are differences, too: For example, while Gen X were the latchkey kids, Gen Y often had “helicopter parents” who arranged everything for them and raised them “as peers in the household,” Sladek said.

Given that Gen X likes autonomy and doesn’t like micromanagement, and Gen Y expects to immediately be treated as esteemed equals, Sladek said, both are often puzzled and put off when they come to the bar association and encounter hierarchy and “closed doors.”

Both generations want “access and action,” Sladek said, adding that you’ll need to prove to them that you can offer them such things right away. And “action” doesn’t mean the same thing to the younger generations as it might to the older ones, she noted. Baby boomers don’t mind “fixing things, discussing problems, hashing them out,” she believes, but Generations X and Y want you to solve the problems and have things already running smoothly by the time they consider joining.

And what about the idea that members join in order to find solutions to their own problems? What are some problems your bar might help solve? Several characteristics and economic factors that Sladek mentioned seem to point toward career services, solo outreach, and other offerings that are typically the province of practice management assistance or law practice management departments.

First, there’s the weak economy, which is not only affecting today’s young lawyers and law students, but is also shaping those further down the pike; the younger end of Gen Y is up against the highest teen unemployment rate in history, Sladek said, and has been for five years running. What will happen, she wondered, as those teens begin their adult lives without having had any work experience at all?

Further, she said, Gen Y as a whole was shaped by Enron and other well-publicized corporate collapses; its members often have a strong entrepreneurial streak and little to no interest in working for a large corporation.

For both generations, she said, “Technology is a defining member value.” Home computers, cell phones, and other technology took off as Gen X was growing up, she explained, and members of Gen Y are “technology natives”—meaning that those tools were present from the time they were born.

This means that for Gen Y in particular, “technology is like oxygen,” Sladek said, and “If you’re not on the leading edge, you’ve just alienated them.”

Both Gen X and Gen Y grew up in an age of ever-increasing customization, she noted, starting when cable TV began to take off, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. What could that mean for the bar? Explore customized membership, Sladek recommended.

Prospective members might start asking some hard questions, she explained, along the lines of, “If I can never attend meetings and am only interested in awards, why do I have to pay for the whole thing?”

There are a few ways you could think of customized memberships, Sladek said. First, you could offer online-only membership for those who only want your electronic offerings. Second, art museums often start with a base price and let the member build from there, adding different features à la carte. Third, some organizations don’t allow full, pick-and-choose customization but do set different tiers with a defined, increasing slate of benefits.

Finally—in what would likely be a big stretch for most bars—some organizations offer free, open membership and get all their revenue from sponsors.

As for Generation Z (yes, there is one), Sladek said they are growing up with less community stability than X and Y had. Technology is even more present and important to them than for X and Y, she said, and they are skeptical and very protective of their free time.

You do have some time to get ready, though: Sladek said the oldest members of Gen Z are currently 13 years old.