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Vol. 38, No. 5

Welcome home: Bar headquarters move, renovate, refocus to meet member needs

by Robert J. Derocher

Wi-Fi, a snack-stocked fridge, a friendly concierge, and meeting rooms with sweeping Southern California vistas: Where can a lawyer in San Diego find such modern conveniences, along with functional workspace that’s also a networking haven and home to a full calendar of seminars and events?

It’s all at The Bar Center at 401, the hip new home of the San Diego County Bar Association, where membership does, indeed, have its privileges.

“It’s the bar, reimagined,” says Ellen Miller-Sharp, the bar’s executive director. “People love it. They can’t believe that we’ve done this, that we’ve done so much for the members. We’ve given them a home.”

But finding, planning, and preparing for that new home was no simple task, Miller-Sharp says. Like many other bars and nonprofit associations that have tackled the issue of cramped and/or outdated office and meeting space, the San Diego County bar made sure to tread thoughtfully and carefully as they explored options and ideas. Cost, convenience, space, and member buy-in—along with a critical eye on the present and future needs of the legal profession—have all been key factors for bars that have recently moved, made improvements, or started making plans to upgrade.

Despite those obstacles, leaders say the benefits of offering new or updated space can help play an important role in reaching out to new and existing members in the ongoing challenge to make their associations more relevant and helpful—particularly via technological advances. It’s all part of the continuing response to a profession that appears to be changing on a regular basis, they say.

Toward increased efficiency

For any association, one of the first places to start assessing the economic need for new or updated space is with membership, says Robert Skelton, chief administrative officer for the American Society of Association Executives. “Think about your members: What do they want? What do they expect?” he says. “You have to provide value to your members.”

And since the 2008 recession, Skelton says, a leading factor in that value has been operational costs for associations and their related facilities. As job losses mounted, many bars and similar associations saw membership declines and/or dues reductions that cut into revenue. While there has been some recovery, many wary associations have not exactly been free spenders, he says.

“There has definitely been a, ‘Let’s get a little smaller’ trend,” Skelton believes. “If [associations] are renting, when their lease is up, they’re looking at tightening things up.”

That is what happened in San Diego County, when the bar sliced the amount of space it used from 22,000 square feet at its former headquarters building to about 13,000 square feet, according to Miller-Sharp. But that didn’t mean that the bar sacrificed much in terms of usable square feet, she says, since the previous space had not been thoroughly updated in 25 years.

“The [previous space] wasn’t designed efficiently. What we have now is unbelievably efficient,” Miller-Sharp says. “We can share printers and copiers, which we couldn’t do before. There is much more functionality.”

The DuPage County (Ill.) Bar Association faced similar design issues last year at its 25-year-old headquarters, says Leslie Monahan, the bar’s executive director. “It was a hodgepodge,” she says of the former residential home that was converted to office space. “We had our computer servers on a 6-foot folding table. There were wires hanging out of the ceiling that attorneys had to step around.”

After weighing the options of moving vs. staying, the bar opted to spend $200,000 on a month-long overhaul that was led by an independent space planner. “We opened the office up, so everything has a better flow now,” Monahan says. “Everything is also wired appropriately.”

This house is not a (long-term) home

But downsizing isn’t an option for every bar association—especially for those in fast-growing areas of the country.

When Pender McElroy first joined the Mecklenburg County (N.C.) Bar in 1969, the bar had about 450 members and a part-time executive director. When the bar purchased its 6,000-square-foot headquarters—a converted home—in 1994, there were about 2,200 members and a handful of staff. Today, more than a dozen employees serve about 4,800 members.

“We’ve looked at expansion for the last 10 years, but between the zoning and parking problems and the [2008] recession, it was put on hold,” says McElroy, a past president of the bar. “But we had to do something.”

Bar leaders eventually settled on a plan to sell the old headquarters and move to a new 20,000-square-foot, bar-owned building now under construction in northwest Charlotte. About half of the $5 million budget is coming from a loan, with the balance coming from the sale of the old bar headquarters, reserves, and a fundraising campaign, according to McElroy.

Among the many benefits of the new building, he says: plentiful parking, flexible office/meeting space, modern computer and teleconferencing amenities, and the ability to hold virtually all CLE events onsite instead of occasionally needing to rent space. The building is expected to be ready for use this fall.

The rapidly expanding State Bar of Nevada has faced similar growing pains at its former-house-turned-bar headquarters.

“We’ve adapted and re-adapted all that we can,” says Kim Farmer, the bar’s executive director. “The meeting space is terrible. My office is in the old sitting room of the house. Clearly, the home was not set up to accommodate 46 people. We’ve stressed this poor little building out.”

By this fall, Farmer expects the bar to occupy 18,000 square feet in a reconfigured office building it will own. This will more than double the bar’s existing space, with room to grow if the bar decides to occupy any of the 10,000 square feet of office space it currently plans to lease out.

“This is going to be our building for many, many years to come,” Farmer says.

Owning vs. leasing, and other decisions

For bars that have recently looked into moving or renovating existing office space, the issue of owning vs. leasing is usually one of the first topics of discussion. Cost, location, size, and suitability are all part of the equation, they say.

For the San Diego County bar, the costs associated with asbestos abatement at its previously owned building, combined with its location several blocks away from important court-related buildings, made leasing a newer space in the heart of the county’s law-related facilities an attractive option, according to Miller-Sharp. In Mecklenburg County, the chance to build and control a custom-made headquarters, combined with attractive real estate prices, led to a bar-owned space.

The question of owning vs. leasing was thoroughly discussed before the Burlington County (N.J.) Bar Association opted to purchase the third floor of a building in 2012. “We’re doing our future a favor by being proud homeowners,” says Doug Heinold, the bar’s secretary, who sat on a subcommittee that developed the purchase plan. “It also made us a competitive entity for CLE.”

Heinold, like other bar leaders in similar positions, also hails the importance of diligent research, thoughtful discussion, and regular communication with bar members in the process. In San Diego County, longtime members who were part of the last bar expansion were brought in for a roundtable discussion on the need for change. A similar approach was taken in DuPage County, where veteran bar members were given an in-depth tour of the facilities. “They agreed it looked really tired and dated,” Monahan says.

The Mecklenburg bar gathered opinions through a membership survey and several focus groups, which helped shape many of the location and design decisions for the new building, McElroy says. Bar leaders have also kept members regularly updated throughout the design and construction process, he adds.

Working from member feedback

And it is that member feedback, combined with regular observation of industry and technology trends, that is shaping the present and future of bar office, meeting, work, and social space, leaders say.

Extensive member surveys and observations indicated that San Diego County bar members usually didn’t need or couldn’t find the time to attend large-scale CLE events, according to Miller-Sharp. But with a membership that was 60 percent solo—and growing—the bar found it needed technological advances that allowed remote CLE attendance, while still providing casual and work and meeting space for members doing business near the county’s legal center, right where the bar is located.

“[Members] wanted more choice. They wanted more flexibility,” Miller-Sharp says. “Now, there’s a greater connection to the legal community. There’s a greater opportunity for networking. There’s a greater sense of, ‘I belong here.’”

Also part of the mix at The Bar Center at 401: Weight Watchers meetings, a book club, and public relations and practice management help for solos and small firms. It’s all part of a campaign, Miller-Sharp says, to keep current members and bring in new ones. “It’s reinvigorating the members. There’s a lot of creativity here,” she says.

As a matter of fact, in June 2014, the SDCBA will receive an ASAE Gold Circle Award—that organization’s top award—in the New Product/Service Launch category. The award recognizes the innovative and effective ways the bar has reached out to members to encourage them to come visit the new headquarters.

‘A very different kind of bar’

As the director of the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers initiative at the University of Denver, Alli Gerkman has had an opportunity to see the evolution of legal practice in Colorado. And as a member of the Denver Bar Association’s Career Development and Improvement Committee, she and others saw what was happening in places like the San Diego County bar. That helped lead to STRATUM, “a community-focused co-working space for members” at the shared headquarters of the DBA and the Colorado Bar Association.

Created from redesigned office space, STRATUM opened in April, providing shared office space and amenities aimed at solos, small-firm practitioners, and recent graduates. Along with Wi-Fi, printers, and meeting rooms, there is also access to a fitness center and networking events.

“This isn’t about going into a cubicle and working by yourself,” Gerkman says. “This is fairly new for us, and fairly new among bar associations. We hope it can be a solid resource for lawyers.” And as a side benefit, she adds, “we also hope we can rope in a few more members.”

Miller-Sharp concedes that the Bar Center at 401 concept was a bit difficult for many established lawyers and veteran bar staff members to embrace. But as interest grows and the profession evolves, she believes it is an idea that bars should consider carefully when looking at redoing their own office space.

“It’s a very different kind of bar,” she says.