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Vol. 38, No. 5

Prepare well, follow the plan, and have fun: Advice for presidents-elect at BLI

Wendy Shiba told attendees at the 2014 ABA Bar Leadership Institute that she has “the best title in association work.” What is it? Immediate past president.

Shiba and her fellow panelists on a program about what to expect from bar presidency agreed that serving as president can be a highlight of one’s career—but there’s no question that it can also be challenging and stressful.

Joining Shiba (who is immediate past president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and a past president of a local NAPABA affiliate based in Philadelphia) were: Julie Armstrong, executive director of the Indianapolis Bar Association; Eric T. Cooperstein, president of the Hennepin County (Minn.) Bar Association; and John Phelps, executive director of the State Bar of Arizona. The discussion was moderated by Gary Labranche, president and CEO of the Association for Corporate Growth.

Getting ready to lead

Bar presidency is “full of surprises,” Shiba believes. Though she had been involved with NAPABA since it started, and believed she knew the organization and its mission very well, “bar leadership is different,” she said.

NAPABA starts its year with “a good board orientation,” Shiba said; she recommended the orientation resources available through the ABA Division for Bar Services, including New Bar President & Members of the Board.

Cooperstein agreed that the learning curve can be significant. While you’re still president-elect, he advised, familiarize yourself with the bar’s budget, dues structure, and financial statements. Also, though it’s unlikely that you can memorize them, read the bar’s bylaws, he recommended.

Get to know people, too, he said. For one thing, it can be surprisingly difficult to appoint people to committees and other roles. Even if you feel sure about your choices, he said, it’s important to meet with committees and constituents. You’ll understand them better, he explained, and also, “It’s easier to get people to do things if they know you.” In fact, he said, the president-elect should spend half of that year meeting people.

Brace yourself for the demands of your role as “chief cheerleader,” Cooperstein advised. You’ll be doing a lot of one-on-one interaction with members and other stakeholders. Between that and the bar president’s other responsibilities, he said, it’s likely that you’ll have to scale back at work—and your clients will have to understand.

You also need to have a supportive employer, Shiba said, one that “sees the value and synergy in bar work.” It happened that she retired shortly before becoming bar president, so that role became, in essence, her full-time job.

Your ED: Here to help

For any president, the executive director can be an important ally in juggling all the additional responsibilities and making sure you serve the association well.

“My job as an executive director is to figure out what’s nagging at you that will prevent you from having the year that you want,” Armstrong said. In fact, she added, it’s likely that your executive director and other high-level bar staff “desperately want to help you.”

This involves planning and discussion before you become president and all through the year. If you think you’re not getting the kind of information and help that you need, Armstrong said, don’t be afraid to speak up so the executive director can make any necessary adjustments well before your term draws to a close.

Sometimes it can take a while for a president to realize just how valuable an executive director can be, Phelps noted. Bar presidents tend to be talented and ambitious, he said—and they also might think they have to do everything themselves. For example, Phelps sometimes has to remind presidents that he or his staff can write letters, prepare news releases, and develop talking points.

“The president will say, ‘I don’t want to waste your time,’” Phelps said. “But that’s our job.”

Armstrong echoed this idea and used a vivid image to help illustrate the difference between the two roles. For her and the bar's staff, association work is their career. But for bar leaders, being president “is supposed to be the icing on the cupcake of your career.”

Thinking beyond ‘your’ year

The temptation to think in terms of “my year” is all too real—and indeed, Phelps said, the typical bar association budget cycle deals with one year at a time. But that’s not the whole story.

“The truth is, our organizations hardly do anything that lasts just one year,” Phelps said. The State Bar of Arizona, like many others, has a five-year strategic plan—which means it’s perfectly acceptable for a president to “do small things well” and to carry the ball forward rather than introducing a big, new idea.

In fact, Phelps said, some of the best bar presidents have been the ones who focused on stability and continuity, rather than the need to make a mark.

Armstrong believes that all bar presidents fall into one of three categories: creators, sustainers, and complainers. Each type has its strengths and weaknesses, she said; even the negative-sounding complainers can be helpful because they encourage those around them to think differently about issues they may have overlooked.

The key, she said, is not to have two presidents in the same category back to back; that way, the bar will neither stagnate nor jump around from one new idea to the next. Along with the strategic plan, Armstrong believes that personality types should be taken into account when determining who the next leaders will be.

Any president, Shiba said, should always be aware of who came before him or her, and who’s coming after. Focus on that “three-year span of leadership,” she advised, adding that one of her responsibilities as president was “a stewardship role with the prior board’s work.”

To lay the groundwork for that type of approach, Cooperstein said he’s been trying to unify his bar’s executive committee as more of a team. He regularly distributes to executive committee members a bulleted report of his activities and the people he met with. He meets once a week with the executive director and encourages the president-elect to attend those same meetings once a month in order to get a sense of how the bar association works.

‘Don’t do it halfway’

If the purpose of the presidency is not necessarily to leave a legacy by creating a major new initiative, then how can a leader make sure that his or her service is meaningful?

“It will be meaningful,” Armstrong said, “if you let yourself have fun.” In fact, she added, if your term isn’t fun for you, that’s another case when you should ask the executive director for help. Why? Because chances are, no one around you is having fun, either—and this can bring down the entire bar’s energy and engagement levels.

Shiba and Cooperstein agreed that the president’s passion—or lack thereof—will filter down throughout the rest of the association.

“Be all in,” Shiba said. “If you’re going to do this, don’t do it halfway.”

Cooperstein highlighted again the need to be physically present as well as engaged in other ways. Get out of your office, he advised; bar members want to see you, and “Your clients will live.” Cooperstein sometimes “hangs out” in the bar association lobby, he noted; even if he’s just checking email, he’s visible and available to members.

“Most likely, you’re only going to do this once,” he said. “So show up.”

(Here are the handouts from this program. Video is available on the BLI website.)