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Vol. 41, No. 2

What comes after the future report? Continued discussion, restructuring may be needed

by Robert J. Derocher

Fred Ury picked up the latest “future of the profession” report produced by a state bar association to land on his desk, tossed it in with a stack of others, and sighed.

“‘We have a problem, Houston.’ That’s what they all say,” explains Ury, a lawyer, a past president of the Connecticut Bar Association and National Conference of Bar Presidents and a tireless agent for change and adaptation in the legal profession. “The question is, now what do we do? We are not coming up with the business model of the new legal practice. But other people are.”

Yes, he says, it’s important for bar associations to recognize problems in the profession—both local and global—and to form task forces and committees to explore ideas for lawyers and bars to adapt and thrive in the future.

But what about following through on task force recommendations? Expanding the roles of committees? Investigating changes in long-standing rules and legislation? Involving more bar members in the discussion?

Coming up with effective responses and reactions to such reports and task forces is still very much a work in progress for many bar associations, Ury and others believe. While forming a “futures” task force or releasing a report can generate a buzz at the bar, continuing the momentum can be challenging, they say. But it is a necessary next step if individual bars, and the profession as a whole, are to successfully embrace—or at least confront—the changes that many believe are necessary to keep lawyers and their associations relevant in the years ahead.

Does focus on the future require changes in structure and staffing?

Like Ury, veteran association consultant Mary Byers believes there is a need for task forces to address the future, as well as a need for a fundamental shakeup of how bar associations and their task forces operate—and it starts at the top, she says.

Presidential initiatives contribute to inhibiting the bar’s growth by eating up valuable staff time with topics and ideas that—while they may be noble causes—might be better left behind, Byers believes. That time could be used to shape the bar’s overall mission, she adds, perhaps through task force or committee work focused on the future.

“[Presidential initiatives] should be a thing of the past,” Byers says. “It’s what you see in social clubs, not in professional associations.”

Instead, she suggests, bar association presidents, along with the bar’s executive committee, should develop a coordinated effort to move the bar forward and should rely on their staff to advance that mission. While presidents and executive committees turn over, she says, it is usually the staff that is the constant and will be around to help push the bar’s mission forward. And if the staff need help? Byers suggests borrowing staff from the bar foundation, or reassigning tasks to allow staff leaders to focus on advancing the work of task forces and executive committees.

“The staff need to be the ones making sure things get done,” she says. “It’s some of the most important work that association staffs need to do today. It’s time for business unusual.”

Restructuring the staff can be useful not only for implementing change at bars, but also for demonstrating what that change can look like, she adds.

“We’ve created a very complex structure so that little movement or headway can be made,” Byers explains. “Does the structure serve us the same way it did 50 years ago? 20 years ago? 10 years ago? We are spending so much time on governance that we’ve moved away from a member focus to a structure focus.”

The future report as groundwork for strategy

For one bar association that is tackling the task of addressing the future, changing some things within the bar structure itself seems to be part of the plan. Envisioning a New Future Today, a report issued in July by the State Bar of Michigan’s 21st Century Practice Task Force, calls for the creation of a Justice Innovation Center within the bar, staffed by the bar, and drawing on a cross-section of legal stakeholders and advised by a legal futurist and an economist.

It is an important step, and one that recognizes the bar’s overall approach to the future needs to change, says Lori Buiteweg, the bar’s immediate past president who helped guide the task force’s work. “The groundwork for the new strategic plan is the task force report,” she says. “We’ll probably see a restructuring of committees and staff.”

Recognizing that decisive action was a signal that the task force was serious, Buiteweg convened a steering committee to bring people to the bar for a one-day meeting that included a similar cross-section of legal and community stakeholders—about a month before the task force report was released. The committee helped develop three task force recommendations that were addressed by the bar’s policy-making assembly shortly after the report was released. Such action was necessary, Buiteweg says, to address a fact of human nature.

“Complacency is going to win the day, every time,” she says. “It’s so difficult to persuade people that they’re going to need to change.’’

Reports are the beginning of a discussion … not the end

Although complacency and inaction are the enemies of change, Buiteweg and others say, a little patience will still likely be part of the equation.

“You can’t eat the elephant in one sitting. You have to carve it up into little pieces and go after it deliberately,” Buiteweg notes. “It will take years for some of these task force recommendations to play out.”

Byers, who has worked with numerous professional associations on such issues, agrees. Again, she says, the cues need to come from leaders who are united and focused on change.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “Sensitivity and political acumen is required.”

The other constant in moving things forward, she and others say: open, candid dialogue, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.

“We need to be willing to have the emotional conversations you need to have,” Byers says.

For Ury, who has spent many hours having such conversations with many skeptical lawyers, it is part of the necessary path forward.

“We need to have adult conversations. We have to change how we’re doing business. We have to innovate,” he says. “There is not an easy solution, but we have to educate the bar; we have to keep having the conversation.

“People agree, but there is such fear making radical change, because members will get upset with them. But you can’t have a task force just to say, ‘Yeah, we did it.’ Don’t waste your money on [just] doing these futures reports.”

(Note: The ABA is another bar association that recently released a report on the future of legal services and has established a permanent center to ensure that the issues within it, particularly those pertaining to access to justice, do not go unaddressed. At press time, the ABA Center for Innovation was in its beginning stages.)