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Vol. 41, No. 5

Confronting ‘Uberization’ takes strong member focus, BLI speaker says

by Marilyn Cavicchia

It’s fitting that Tom Morrison, president and CEO of Tom Morrison & Associates and CEO of management at the Metal Treating Institute, was the opening plenary speaker at the 2017 ABA Bar Leadership Institute: He gave an assignment that could change the kind of experience that attendees had, and the type of notes they came home with.

Morrison said he advises his own employees that it doesn’t matter which programs they attend at a conference, and that what does matter is that they find and note, each day:

  1. one new idea;
  2. one thing they’ll do differently when they return to the office on Monday; and
  3. one person they met who can help them and the association.

That’s the kind of information that leaders need today, Morrison said, to help their associations survive and thrive in a new and challenging environment.

Change isn’t new, he noted, but its pace has accelerated, which requires both leaders and their associations to adjust—quickly.

“Change never came at us faster than we went to it. We could gently approach it,” he said. “Not anymore.”

Need an example of a fast-moving change? Morrison pointed out that Uber, that well-known disruptor of the taxi industry, went from $0 to $70 billion in just five years.


Is your board and the strategic plan focused on members?

During the time that Morrison has been at MTI, which is a trade organization for people in the metal treating industry, the organization has seen 1,500 percent growth in its net reserves, “even in a terrible economy” (he arrived in 2008).

What has helped it achieve that kind of growth, he said, is not a “big strategic change” but “slow, incremental changes that mushroomed.” In fact, Morrison believes there’s a big risk in focusing too much on the strategic plan rather than directly on members.

Why? Strategic plans often reflect the priorities of the top third of members because those are the people who can most afford to be on the board and devote time to the planning process, Morrison explained, adding, “Two thirds of your members are just getting by day to day.”

Morrison identified three key elements of an effective focus on members:

  1. Do for members what they can’t do as well for themselves.
  2. Prioritize member engagement, particularly for new members—get them involved right away.
  3. Create a “wow” factor. Any time you introduce something new, make a “big deal” about it. Do be careful, though, that anything you add has real value, not just “perceived value”—if it’s all an illusion, Morrison noted, members will see through it … and will be angry.

To keep the board focused in this direction rather than on their own priorities, Morrison recommended asking at the end of each meeting, “Was what we did today member focused?” Other questions that are useful for the board, he added, include, “Are our decisions aligned with the direction we want to go?”, “How much are we investing in technology?” (an area where Morrison said many associations spend too little), and “Are we putting the right people in charge?”

Change coming from both expected and unexpected sources

Given that the legal market amounts to $400 billion, Morrison said, it’s only natural that “Uberization”—the disruption of a longtime industry or profession by a company that taps into consumer needs and uses technology well—will occur and has already begun.

And if Uber is coming, he continued, you don’t want to be the taxi association, which is now putting much of its energy into fighting Uber via municipal regulations. What if, Morrison asked, the taxi association had listened—much sooner—to how consumers, and especially young people, wanted to get from one place to another?

Much has been written about the use of artificial intelligence in the legal profession and about tech-focused companies such as LegalZoom. But Morrison challenged the audience—and bar association boards—to stretch themselves and think of disruptors they might not have considered before.

For example, he said, if Google’s self-driving car becomes popular, it will disrupt a number of different fields, including the legal profession. DUIs and tickets would decrease in number, so those running schools for DUI diversion and defensive driving would have less business. Drivers would now be passengers, so they’d be free to look down at their devices for the duration of the trip—and not up at billboards.

The number of car accidents would also decrease, which is good news in general but will bring some changes, Morrison said. Recently, someone at a medical association told him that accidents account for 35 percent of all medical care in the area where this conversation occurred. And this would also change things considerably for personal injury lawyers, he noted: “If no one is crashing, there’s nobody to sue.”

On the closer horizon, Morrison said to look at things like and Airbnb. offers a suite of online training courses for a monthly fee; right now, its courses are mostly focused on technology, he said, but it may just be a matter of time before it or another company such as Coursera explores offering CLE. As for Airbnb, as more members become accustomed to using it for leisure travel, they might also start linking up with each other to share condos during meetings and conferences. If your bar is hosting a meeting, Morrison said, you could see the percentage of registrants staying at the conference hotel go from 97 percent to somewhere in the 80s “in a heartbeat.”

All board members should be encouraged to “look up at the sky for what’s coming,” Morrison said, and so should everyone who works for the bar. Thanks to social media, he noted, even the person who cleans the office might have read something that can help you. Put up a graphic of a radar screen in the break room or other common area, Morrison suggested, and ask everyone to write on it (anonymously is fine) any threats they can think of.

Ask the right questions … and then really listen to the answers

A common question regarding change and uncertainty is “What keeps you up at night?” but Morrison thinks that’s the wrong question.

Better, he said, is to ask “What is the friction, anxiety, and stress” in some key areas and processes—not just in the profession, but also at your bar association? Then, listen for the “little things” that members say are problems, and that you can fix. For example, does your CLE registration process require multiple logins? Does it take a month or more for new members to receive anything from you?

Whether it’s in members’ professional lives or in their interactions with your association, Morrison said, “if enough members identify the same stress, that’s a big opportunity for you.”

Fixing something small, he said, can make a big difference for members—and help you face the future together.