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Vol. 42, No. 6

Innovation in real life: The Ohio State Bar Association and the Indianapolis Bar Association

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“Lawyers are 100 percent for progress,” said Mary A. Augsburger, executive director of the Ohio State Bar Association, “and 1,000 percent against change.”

That statement at the 2018 ABA Bar Leadership Institute got a lot of laughs and nods of recognition. Given this aspect of the lawyer temperament and a structure that is not known for nimbleness, how can a bar association innovate in some of the ways recommended by Mary Byers (see “Mary Byers: To increase membership and participation, make it easy to join and buy,” also in this issue)?

Joining Augsburger in discussing how their bar associations have made innovation happen in real life was Julie Armstrong, executive director of the Indianapolis Bar Association.

OSBA to launch tiered membership

Despite her joke about lawyers and change, Augsburger said her bar’s board was ready to do something different based on some distressing trends: a perpetual struggle with member retention; a 70 percent bar pass rate for the most recent exam (at the time of BLI), combined with a wave of lawyer retirements; and a survey in which nearly 50 percent of lawyers said they didn’t belong to any bar association at all.

Meanwhile, the membership application was too complicated, Augsburger recalled; by the time it listed all the categories based on practice setting, number of years in practice, and other factors, there wasn’t room for much else. “Where do we tell them all the good things we do for them?” was one question that was raised. This resulted in the addition of three bullet points about what the OSBA offers, but Augsburger said that still wasn’t enough.

Seven of the 24 OSBA board members met monthly for six months to complete an enterprise risk management process, which involved a matrix for assessing the risk and opportunity presented by pursuing certain new ideas. From there, a member task force was created to look at various bundling and pricing models.

What emerged—to be launched in 2019—is essentially a two-tier system (there’s a third tier, but it’s only for retired lawyers and those who voluntarily gave up their license for whatever reason): the Member Value Plan and the Value Plus Plan. Eventually, the OSBA will test a basic plan, Augsburger noted, but the bar didn’t want to debut this bare-bones membership option at the same time as the other two.

Member research yielded insights that could be useful for other bars as well. For example, Augsburger advised, don’t introduce tiered pricing as a way to hide a dues increase: “Members said they would know.” Also, the bar was initially thinking of Silver, Gold, and Platinum tiers, but members didn’t like those names—they thought they established too much differentiation and obscured the fact that all members are equal, and all have a vote.

Response to the overall idea of tiers was generally positive, Augsburger said: Among current members, less than 1 percent said they wouldn’t renew if the bar went in this direction. Meanwhile, 13 percent said they would buy the premium (Value Plus) plan—and 35 percent of the nonmembers who responded said they would be more likely to join if membership were customizable in this way.

Indianapolis Bar Association: How can we rethink what we do?

Armstrong said she doesn’t have trouble getting her bar’s leaders and staff to think about doing new things—but she does struggle to implement those ideas. For example, much as she might admire a tiered membership system, Armstrong said, “We don’t have the budget or the people to do that.”

But that doesn’t mean the Indy bar isn’t noticing and responding to consumer trends and coming up with innovative new ways to rethink how it operates.

One trend that Armstrong knows about through her own children is the need for “nontraditional access to service.” Younger people often “don’t want to call anyone about anything,” instead preferring to request and receive information online at any hour of the day or night, she explained.

Another trend, she noted, is the increased competition in areas that used to belong almost exclusively to bar associations. For example, she said, Solo Practice University doesn’t call itself a bar association, but in many ways, it’s very much like one. This has led Armstrong and her bar association to think much more in terms of branding and what “product” they’re selling, rather than in terms of intangibles such as a sense of belonging.

One of the more popular products, she said, is Indy Lawyer Finder, which is not new but is significantly cheaper than Avvo, Armstrong said, and it’s bundled in a way that’s easy for members to understand and buy. Under the name Indybar Business Builder, a member can buy monthly access to Indy Lawyer Finder, the bar's online lawyer referral service, and its modest means panel. Similarly, for solo and small-practice lawyers, the bar now groups solo-focused webinars, podcasts, and print materials under the name Indybar Practice Builder.

The bar is also using a subscription plan for section membership (though not for general bar membership), and chose Member Central association management software because it works well with that type of model.

One of the most concerning trends is one that Armstrong considers to be a fact that all bar associations must deal with, and one that is likely to be permanent: declining membership numbers. Adapting to this new reality, she said, requires “changing the measures of success.” Think more in terms of what the bar’s service area is, what its potential market is, and what share of that market it has, Armstrong advised.

“Give your ED a little bit of grace here,” she said, speaking to the bar leaders in the room. “If you’re looking at bottom-line membership, you’re looking at the wrong thing.”