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Vol. 41, No. 2

Lessons in change: Long-time executive directors, now retiring, share what they’ve learned

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Here are a couple of things that seem undeniable: 1) In the past year or so, a lot of long-time bar association executive directors have announced their retirement, and 2) Their tenure has coincided with a period of arguably unprecedented change in the legal profession—and, correspondingly, in bar associations.

What have been some of the biggest changes they’ve seen during their years as ED—and what advice do they have for those who are just now coming in and who may face changes we can’t even imagine yet?

Bar Leader recently caught up with several of them—some who have recently retired, and others who will retire in the coming months. Most have been executive director for 30-some years, some with significant bar experience prior to that. What follows is at least a sampling of what they told us about change, and how to keep the bar moving forward.

Technology, part 1: Remember typewriters and 3x5 cards?

Trisha Graham, executive director of the Tarrant County Bar Association, shared with us this vivid account of her first day on the job (which was then part time), in June 1992. Maybe you’ll recognize some of the details:

“The association did not have a permanent office, and the 15 boxes of records/history were moved from president to president each year. The 1992 office, in a back room of the incoming president’s law office, consisted of an old secretarial desk with a ‘hidden’ drawer for the typewriter (at least it was a correcting Selectric), a telephone, and a PC that used hard disks on top of a table that could fall any minute.

“My first meeting with the president-elect is a real eye-opener! He is not sure that the association has a membership list, but there is a box of 3 by 5 notecards that have membership dues payment history. Some of them have been recorded into Paradox, a DOS-based database program that was already obsolete.

“The president-elect casually mentions, ‘Oh, yeah, you need to get that information into the database pronto as the association’s fiscal year begins July 1, and I am not sure we have enough to make payroll. So, you will need to draft a letter for my signature encouraging the attorneys to join this year, order printed business letterhead, business envelopes with and without the bulk mail stamp, and the dues return envelope that has printed lines for the members to update their contact information, and check the bulk mail account balance. And by the way, I will be going on vacation next week, so I need the draft of the letter ASAP.’

“Wait … go back—you need people to pay dues so you can pay me?”

Larry Houchins encountered a similar level of technology when he started at The Mississippi Bar in June 1980—but there was no PC, and while the typewriters were electric, they still required Wite-Out for corrections. “Some lawyers were still using ‘rice paper’ for carbon copies of letters!” he notes.

There were no cell phones back then—and no voicemail, either. Houchins chuckles at the memory of fellow execs racing out of NABE meetings to call their office from a pay phone … and cringes at the memory of being out for a few days and returning to find “a stack of pink phone message slips.”

The elaborate system of notecards and envelopes that Graham described was also present at his bar, and often, its cost in staff time and postage played a large role in determining when to reach members.

“Today, all we do is draft the document, and with a few clicks, it goes out to our entire membership instantaneously, and at no cost!” he says. “The savings in time, manpower, and postage is amazing.”

The advent of smartphones, email, and the virtual office—and corresponding 24/7 availability—can have its downsides, Houchins admits, but is nonetheless a great improvement. “In the ‘80s, you were either at work or not,” he notes. “Once you left the office, you were ‘out,’ and productivity ceased.”

For Keith Norman, executive director of the Alabama State Bar, taking a leap forward from the typical technology and communications scenario of the ‘80s and ‘90s required some calculated risk. The bar set up its first website and email system in 1995—just one year after he became ED. The internet was still in its “infancy,” he recalls, and there was no IT staff to advise him.

The unfamiliar terminology added to Norman’s perception that the internet was almost akin to “science fiction,” and “an investment that could well flop”—especially if members didn’t respond favorably.

“Fortunately, I had read enough to realize that it could be a very useful tool, so we went forward,” Norman says. “After a few months of getting used to it, I was finally able to appreciate its many opportunities.”

Technology, part 2: Has something been lost?

Graham is thrilled that her bar now has all the latest technology that helps it stay connected with its members. But she notes that as technology has become more a part of all of our lives, we have become almost helpless without it: Think about the last time the internet was down for even a moment at work. Did everyone freak out? “Here is a thought,” she says. “How about using the phone and calling the member instead of sending them an email?”

Technology has also bred an expectation that information should arrive faster and faster, and that no one should ever be out of touch. If someone texts you and you don’t answer soon enough for them, they’re likely to send you another text, Graham says—or an email to ask if you got their text.

Evelyn Albert, executive director of the Lancaster Bar Association, is very concerned that being constantly connected via technology is, paradoxically enough, causing younger lawyers to miss some important connections.

“Managing partners will often come to me when they’re considering adding an associate position,” she explains. “I used to have an assortment of resumes of young lawyers looking for positions, and I was able to give my personal recommendations to the hiring partners.

“What I’m seeing most dramatically now is that young lawyers don’t interact face to face. They are so keyed into their cell phones and social media that they seem to have lost the understanding of how to network in the real world.”

Technology, part 3: Changes in the profession

“Tremendous changes are happening right now” in technology and the practice of law, says George Brown, executive director of the State Bar of Wisconsin, adding that those who are trying to ignore or resist those changes now may not be able to in the future. “Ten or 15 years from now, they’ll be swept up in it,” he believes, “and they’re not going to know what happened.”

Rather than seeing the LegalZooms of the world as a threat, Brown believes lawyers should view them as a challenge—and an opportunity. If technology can handle some of the work that used to be “bespoke”—and expensive for the client—then lawyers could spend more time advising their clients rather than drafting simple documents for which “good enough” really is OK.

“It used to be ‘counselor at law,’” Brown says. “Somewhere along the way, we lost the counselor part—and that’s where the value is.”

Brown points to similar changes in the field of accounting, where CPAs were threatened first by chains such as H&R Block and then by technologies such as TurboTax. Now, he says, they sell themselves as business advisors who can guide you in ways that those services simply can’t.

“Lawyers could do the same thing,” he says. “If you can figure out how to leverage it, then there is a niche.”

For voluntary bars, ‘everyone’ doesn’t join anymore

“The big firms don’t automatically sign up all of their attorneys as Palm Beach County Bar Association members,” says Patience Burns, who retired this past September as the bar’s executive director. “It used to be a given that all of the attorneys in a firm would be members, but that just isn’t the case anymore.”

Another change that presents a challenge for local and metro bars, she notes, is an increase in specialty bars that also make a case for lawyers’ dues dollars and time.

Albert has seen that same change, and ties it to the increased focus on billable hours. Senior partners no longer bring their young associates to bar functions and convey the expectation that they not only join, but also get involved, she says.

Cathy Maher, executive director of the Dallas Bar Association, notes this same sharpened emphasis on the economics of law practice and believes it has significant implications for ethics and professionalism, as bar efforts along these lines are generally not viewed as being helpful to a firm’s bottom line.

Rather than balking at this change, she says, bars can regain traction by figuring out how to “pitch their activities to convince managing partners of law firms that the time spent on bar activities can convert to dollars for the firm in the future.” Pro bono opportunities, professionalism programs, and trial academies all help shape “better lawyers,” help the public—and can also be marketed to managing partners as ways for associates to build their experience, their network, and eventually, their billable hours, Maher believes.

A further challenge, she notes, is that in Dallas and perhaps in other cities, national law firms are coming onto the scene, and the managing partners are based elsewhere—making it hard to bring them into the fold.

But once that connection is made,” she adds, “the value of bar work is more likely to be passed down to lawyers in their law firms."

Building a stronger, better bar

Allan Head faced a similar membership challenge even before he became executive director of the North Carolina Bar Association—and it led to a change that he says is still paying off today.

In 1979, when he was still assistant executive director, the bar was primarily led by general practitioners—and Head began to see “the handwriting on the wall” that if the bar didn’t establish sections for particular areas of practice, many members would leave the voluntary bar and start their own groups.

The leadership saw this as a “divisive” issue, Head recalls, but he was able to point to the statewide medical society as an example; its members were then leaving in droves to form associations based on their practice. The bar’s bankruptcy lawyers led the effort and formed the bar’s first such section, soon joined by eight others. There are now 31 specialized sections, with 20,000 members among them.

“Sections now bring life to the NC Bar Association, and for many members, this is the primary reason for membership in our statewide, voluntary association,” Head notes.

Another change that has had long-lasting benefits was at the Maryland State Bar Association, where Executive Director Paul Carlin and other leaders had to make the decision to discontinue a 35-year-old statewide CLE institute that was in a 15-year “financial down spiral” despite significant assistance from the bar.

The 12-employee program was downsized to four, with corresponding liquidation of office equipment and rented space. The rocky transition involved many details over many months, Carlin says, but led to “a seamless, successful result that benefits the MSBA and our members.”

Adds Carlin, “The keys to the success of this transformation were stabilizing the CLE income and reducing the program’s expenses by allowing the MSBA ‘mothership’ to assume so many of the CLE program’s functions, like accounting, computing, and marketing.”

Katherine Mazzaferri, executive director of the District of Columbia Bar, notes that change is par for the course at bar associations, given that there’s a new president each year. But one of the biggest changes during her tenure was back in the ‘90s, when a particular president wanted to take an in-depth look at the bar’s pro bono efforts and how they could be improved.

The bar asked others around the country about their own pro bono programs—what worked, and what could be better—and then “borrowed shamelessly,” Mazzaferri recalls, while also adapting various ideas to suit the bar and its area.

The result was a significant and enduring transformation of the program, one that Mazzaferri says taps into the bar’s strong connections. The bar has gone from serving only “a handful” of people with its pro bono programs to helping 20,000 people a year with 1,700 volunteers and 18 staff people. Many of those volunteers, she notes, are government lawyers, transactional lawyers, and other nontraditional pro bono prospects who were eager to help.

“It’s been very exciting,” Mazzaferri says. “We’re making a difference for the public, for the court, and for lawyers.”

(One last thing: Interested in specific tips from the retiring executive directors for the ones now coming in? Please see “Advice for new EDs in changing times,” also in this issue.)