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Vol. 43, No. 4

Right on the money: Careful strategy, new technology help bars move toward the future

by Robert J. Derocher

Faced with slowly declining membership and strained budget resources—and a corresponding staff cut—Indiana State Bar Association Executive Director Joe Skeel introduced a revamped orientation program this year for the bar’s volunteer section and committee leaders. Gone was the breezy hour-long session that provided brief overviews from staff and top bar leadership. In its place: an all-day session emphasizing a more strategic view of bar leadership and the refreshed role of bar staff.

“We’ve moved away from, ‘the staff liaison is there to help you execute what you want,’ to ‘the staff liaison is your co-pilot. We’re there to help you navigate,’” says Skeel, now into his second year as executive director. “The goal is to teach them and to help them become more effective and better leaders.”

The shift, he says, is important not only for helping free up volunteer leaders: It helps Skeel in keeping a tight budget on track. “Volunteers often don’t know budget ramifications,” he says. “Staff members can bring the big picture.”

The shift is also subtle, Skeel adds, but it is one of many such tacks that some executive directors are taking in the evolving approach to managing associations with stagnant-to-sinking membership and budgets. Often, they say, the same-old-same old—from hiring, to management, to the so-called “sacred cows” of longtime association members—is getting a more thorough vetting as the emphasis shifts toward providing meaningful member value at a price that members, and potential new members, will embrace.

Often, change starts small

While Skeel did not have a legal or bar background when he came to the ISBA, he did bring along some experience with struggling organizations and professions: A former newspaper reporter and editor, he was executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists, which faced declining membership and budgetary challenges that he helped turn around.

After spending several months learning about the ISBA, Skeel began implementing incremental changes with an eye toward reducing expenditures, such as scaling back the size and spending of the Board of Governors annual meeting, as well as making internal staffing cuts and structural changes (achieved mainly through retirements and attrition) that reduced the number of staff from 20 to 15, while also implementing changes such as the staff/leadership orientation shift. This year, for the first time in about a decade, he says, the bar is expected to have a budget that does not rely on borrowing from reserves.

The reception has been mostly positive, he notes, and a key reason is the incremental approach that avoids a quick shakeup.

“You start small, pick your little battles, and get some early victories,” Skeel says. “It’s really about building confidence and trust, not just in me, but in themselves and the organization, so leaders can realize that when they do make changes, it’s not the end of the world.”

Anne Noble says she took the same approach in 2018 in her first year at the helm of the Bar Association of Erie County (N.Y.), where the bar’s regular magazine was cut from 10 to six times per year—done in part to help fund technological upgrades to the bar’s website. Also gone is a regular photographer for bar events.

“Change starts with a really good listening tour. We’re making incremental change and talking to people first to make sure we’re meeting their needs,” Noble says. “Everyone wants the bar association to be current, and we find that they’re receptive to change.”

The savvy—and smaller—staff

Staff restructuring was also an important part of Jason Hensley’s approach upon becoming executive director of the North Carolina Bar Association, following the 35-year tenure of the late Allan Head.  Hensley established three new staff leadership positions designed to break down silos and encourage more communication among various bar departments.

“We can’t operate in a steady state. The organization really needs to be in a steady state of evolution,” Hensley says. “Is the structure durable, and is it adaptable? Does the underlying structure allow for change? How will we move as everything continues to move? You want to be able to identify and lead that change.”

At the San Antonio (Texas) Bar Association, the retirement of Executive Director Jimmy Allison—after 50 years of leadership—along with a consultant’s report recommending changes, combined to create the need for new viewpoint that led to outsourcing of some financial functions, a reduction of staff from 13 to nine, and a greater emphasis on technology to improve staff functionality, says June Moynihan, the bar’s executive director.

“Everyone now uses project management software,” she says. “I’ve gone from a day and a half of [internal] meetings to getting software reports from my staff. I have a very savvy staff; now they’re freed up to go on to their next project.”

While voluntary bars often feel intense pressure to confront membership and budget challenges, mandatory bars are not immune, says Larry Martin, executive director of the State Bar of Wisconsin.  With fewer new attorneys in the pipeline and retirements accelerating, Martin has been working to reshape—and reduce—staff and programs and refocus on the fundamentals of a balanced budget that does not rely on dwindling cash reserves, while also bolstering technology spending.

“As budgets get tighter, more people are understanding that we all share in this,” Martin says. “Broader context is critical to getting leadership buy-in and member buy-in as to why you’re making these changes.”

Letting some things go

For Theresa Hurley, executive director of the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Bar Association, there has been little chance for incremental approaches. The bar faced an immediate funding challenge when one of the county’s biggest law firms and a longtime bar supporter suddenly went out of business.

“I’ve been trying to cull some programs for years, but having a large firm close down was kind of a wakeup call for the board,” she says. “Now, they’re a little more open to trying to sunset some things.”

For example, she says, the board just voted to dissolve a fee-arbitration program that was not covering costs, and also opted to hand off administration of a bar foundation scholarship program to the foundation. The bar is also looking to implement an online intake system for its lawyer referral service that will likely save money.

Still, she says, challenges remain in separating bar members from long-standing initiatives, such as an annual fundraiser for a food bank: a noble pursuit, “but not part of our core mission,” Hurley says. “I’m not sure that committee still likes me.”

Getting into the value mindset

For many executive directors, the main focus continues to be on finding the right combination of prudent spending, right-sized staffing and relevant programs and events that will make the bar a lasting value proposition for current and potential members. And that often starts—and continues—with more rigorous introspection and investigation.

 “We’ve taken a hard look over the last year and a half at eliminating those things that were maybe nice to do, but maybe had marginal value, and then redirecting our resources,” Martin says. “It’s moving away from being all things to all people, and trying to figure out those things that have the greatest impact and most meaning for our members.”

At the North Carolina bar, Hensley is relying on technology to help provide answers.

“We use Survey Monkey and organization-wide surveys, and every [CLE] program we have comes with a survey behind it, and we pay attention to that and we improve on it,” he says. “You have to measure what you’re doing. You have to be able to evaluate what you’re doing and the dollars that you’re spending on it.”

Adds Noble: “I’m a big believer in strategic planning. There needs to be constant examination of your programs, mission and strategic plan.”

In Skeel’s view, much of the responsibility of leading that strategic thinking lands on the desk of the executive director of any association, not just bars.

“It’s on the EDs. They have to help the volunteers. They have more of a broad view. They have to be the ones to help leaders understand, ‘Yeah, we did this for a couple years, but let’s look at the value. What are we offering? Does it make sense today?’” he believes.

And once members understand the need for change?

“Once you get them in the mindset of ‘value,’ it’s not hard to move away from things that are ‘tradition,’” Skeel says. “Now you’re looking at it from the lens of return on investment for members, not as, ‘What have we always done?’”