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Vol. 41, No. 1

Amidst a wave of ED retirements, NABE panel offers succession advice

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Are you one of the many executive directors for whom retirement is on the not-too-distant horizon?

If so, no matter how irreplaceable you, your board, and your staff think you are, “it will not take three or four years to hire your replacement.” That’s according to Liz Neeley, who knows a thing or two about transition at the top: She became executive director of the Nebraska State Bar Association while the bar was in the midst of deunifying.

Neeley was part of a panel discussion on executive transition at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives, along with Robert E. Craghead, executive director of the Illinois State Bar Association; Jennifer Lewin, director of knowledge management and governance for the ABA Division for Bar Services; and Tom Pyrz, executive director of the Indiana State Bar Association.

Together, the panelists advised attendees on such matters as how long the transition period should be, whether the bar should hire a search firm, and how to ensure that this often rocky time is as smooth and productive as possible.

No lame ducks … or circling the airport

On the subject of how soon to announce your plans to leave the ED position, Lewin said there may be cases where a two-year time frame makes sense. For example, she said, perhaps you’ve been “drastically underpaid” for years and would like to draft an exit agreement that makes up some of the missing compensation. Or perhaps you’ll continue to work for the bar in a consulting role, and those details need to be worked out. Even so, she said, it may be better to negotiate these matters more privately and wait to make your official announcement.

There was a range among the panelists—and in the audience—but no one seemed to think the typical transition period should be longer than a year.


“The moment you announce your retirement, your staff becomes uneasy,” Neeley said, explaining that bar employees will worry about who their next boss will be—and whether he or she will value whatever projects they’re responsible for.

There’s also the dreaded “lame duck scenario,” in which necessary changes are not implemented because it’s believed that they may as well be saved for the next person, Neeley said. Lewin agreed and said this phenomenon can also be called “circling the airport”—because everything is in a holding pattern.

One well-intended idea that can extend that holding pattern even longer? Having the departing ED stay on for a while after the new ED arrives. This leads to “unproductive results,” Craghead said, because it can cause resentment and confusion among the staff over who’s really in charge. A better idea, Neeley added—and one that worked well for the Ohio State Bar Association a few years ago—is for the retiring ED to agree to be on call for a while in case something comes up.

Who knows what the ED does?

“I honestly believe that a lot of search firms have no clue about bar associations and what we do,” Craghead said.

On the other hand, Neeley said, a search firm can be a great buffer in a common and awkward situation. “Your members are going to apply for this position,” she noted—and it can be much easier for the search firm, rather than a fellow bar member or the HR director, to tell them they’re not qualified. (On a similarly awkward note, Neeley said, resist giving an obviously underqualified internal candidate what she called “a sympathy interview.”)

Neeley herself was a “quasi-internal candidate” and is glad she was part of a national search, which “legitimized the process” so it didn’t appear rigged in her favor. This was especially helpful because she’s not a lawyer, which prompted a few raised eyebrows.

The panelists all agreed that they’ve seen a trend away from bar associations necessarily thinking that the ED must be a lawyer; for example, in Nebraska, the position was listed as “JD preferred.”

As being an association executive has become a profession in its own right, Pyrz believes, whether or not someone is a lawyer isn’t important anymore. Pyrz does have a JD but joked, “If I did anything ‘legal’ in what I do right now, it would be malpractice.”

If you establish a search committee—whether instead of or in addition to a search firm—there may be good reason not to load it with past bar presidents, Neeley said; an example might be if the bar association needs to make a sharp break from the past.

On the other hand, she said, “bar presidents are the one [type of] person who really knows what you do on a daily basis.” Consider adding a couple or few past presidents who might do especially well with this task, she suggested.

A few key staff members might also belong on the search committee, Craghead said, such as the assistant to the chief financial officer, the director of continuing legal education, the assistant human resources director, and the bar’s general counsel.

“I believe the more eyes on a candidate, the better,” he said.

If it matters, write it down

What’s another great way to make sure that the executive director’s actual responsibilities—as opposed to a job description that may now be out of date—are less of a mystery? Write them down, Neeley advised.

“There are so many things that are done as an executive director that are not documented anywhere,” she explained.

Pyrz advised going a step further: In documenting what skills and qualifications he thinks the next executive director of his bar should have, he took into account the changing times and changing needs of the bar, and included some requirements that go beyond his own skill set.

What does the bar need next?

Echoing Pyrz, Lewin said an executive transition should be a time for careful reflection, and the board should consider such questions as “Where are we as a bar association?” and “What do we need?”

The same goes for a transition in your senior staff, Craghead said: Don’t be afraid to take time to reassess and reevaluate how the position has evolved and what the new person should bring to the bar association.

In cases where the executive director is the one leaving, how active a role should he or she play in finding a replacement?

Similar to what Pyrz is doing, Neeley said that her predecessor at the Nebraska bar helped write the new job description—but then stayed out of the process.

It can be very uncomfortable, she explained, if the board determines that what they’re looking for in the next ED is something that the departing one doesn’t have.

“You can’t have as candid a conversation,” she noted, “if the current executive director is in the room.”

Need more help? Resources available from Bar Services

Lewin spotlighted a new offering from the ABA Division for Bar Services that can be helpful for any bar association facing an executive transition: the Succession Planning Resource Page. Along with helpful articles and information, this resource page features succession plans, job descriptions, timelines, and other documents from a number of state and local bar associations.

For those who are not using a search firm, Lewin added, the Division’s Consulting Services can provide in-person help with this important and sometimes difficult process.