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Vol. 45, No. 6

The best in bar governance: Highlights from the Board Catalyst Webinar Series

By Marilyn Cavicchia

Stay tuned this summer regarding what’s next for the ABA Division for Bar Services Board Catalyst Webinar Series, which offers insights from governance experts and thought leaders to help guide board members and their bars.

In the meantime, here are a few highlights from the 2019-2020 season, with particular focus on information shared in these programs that is especially relevant to the global and national challenges that bars are facing now.

Also, in light of everyone's limited resources at this time, the ABA Division for Bar Services is offering bar leaders complimentary access to the full recordings of the Board Catalyst webinars described below. If you or your board members would like to take advantage of this offer, please email Joanne O'Reilly for more information.

The Room Where It Happens: Building an Extraordinary Board, with governance expert Vicki Clark (October 2019)

  • Governance is not only doing things right, but doing the right things at the right time for the organization. “What is the right thing to do at this time?” Clark asked. “With the organization’s current membership, at its current capacity, with what’s going on in the external world, what’s the right thing now?” That might be “radically different,” she added, from what was right two years ago, five years ago, or even one year ago.
  • Even at the pre-pandemic time when Clark spoke, she noted that bar leadership today involves much uncertainty and ambiguity. She suggested this as a board member recruitment question: “Can you handle ambiguity?” If the answer is "no," Clark said, then this is not their time to lead.
  • Clark said that there has been high turnover among chief staff executives recently and that succession planning is critically important (and may be even more so now than it was when she spoke). A relatively new idea, and one that Clark favors in some cases, is hiring an interim CEO who is not eligible to move into the actual job. This person spends three to six months learning what the CEO role entails for that organization and helping to guide the hiring process, Clark explained. Bringing in someone like this, she believes, is far preferable to asking a staff member to serve as interim and then hiring from outside. In addition to a standard succession plan for the chief staff executive, Clark added, it’s also important to have an emergency succession plan for this position and for board members as well, in case unforeseen circumstances require someone to step down.

Sparking Joy: Cleaning Out a Bar's Cluttered Closet, with consultant Elizabeth Derrico (December 2019)

  • When it comes to bar programs, projects, and services that may not be as effective or necessary as they once were, “celebrate what was done,” Derrico said, “and make room for what’s most important now.” What do you want the bar to be known for, and are there some things that wouldn’t be missed if they went away? Resist the temptation to add space for new bar programs by getting “a storage locker” for the old ones, Derrico advised. Resources for many bars are getting tighter and tighter, she said, and demographics indicate that there will be more contraction in the legal market and more competition for dues dollars and for time and energy. “Be mindful of capacity issues,” Derrico said, “and address them in a deliberate, considerate way.”
  • Not only volunteers, but also staff members who are directly involved with certain bar programs can find the sunsetting idea threatening because (perhaps even more so now) it feels as if their livelihood is at stake. “We own what we build together,” Derrico said. Be transparent regarding the criteria for a bar program to be continued or to be wrapped up, be conscious about how the decision is made and communicated, and involve staff to participate in some way, too, so that the sunsetting decision results from a thoughtful, inclusive conversation rather than feeling as if it was imposed.
  • It’s important to prevent becoming overloaded again in the future, perhaps especially as bars try new things in response to the new challenges that arose starting in March 2020. Establish a vetting process for new programs, Derrico recommended, and also build in a sunsetting mechanism from the start. Word choice can help avoid setting the expectation that a program will last forever, she added: Never call something the “first annual” or “second annual.” It can be helpful, she said, to think of a new program as being a pilot—something that the bar will try for a year or two or three rather than making a longer term commitment and investment.

Creating a Future-Focused Mindset, with solo lawyer Jessica Birken (February 2020)

  • Birken, a solo lawyer who focuses on nonprofits, works exclusively on a subscription or flat-fee basis. She recently started a podcast, and she offers a free e-book in order to obtain email addresses, which she then uses to promote not only her legal services, but also an online course she has developed. But all of these tech-forward, consumer-driven tactics, she says, are within her state’s current rules of professional conduct. Her point was that neither bars nor lawyers need to maintain business as usual while awaiting the outcome of various regulatory change proposals. “I really believe that at least part of our future of law for our members is helping them simply adapt and modernize,” she said. “And that can be done now.”
  • The most important connections in Birken’s professional life, she said, have not occurred through anything from a bar, but instead have arisen from self-formed communities online. One reason for this, she believes, is that while bars think they offer community—via committee service, awards, publications, and events—most of what they offer falls more under “resume-building activities.” A key factor in what she has found online (and something that bars may have found, too, in informal Zoom chats during the pandemic) is vulnerability. “Rethink how to foster connection and community among your membership,” she recommended. “If we’re all competing and trying to build our resume, then we’re not being vulnerable and trying to create a real connection.”  If bars can help bring about this change, she said, by freshening their events, publications, and other offerings so they are less formal and offer more ways to connect, this could make a real difference in pervasive problems among lawyers, such as isolation, mental illness, and substance abuse.
  • Bars can play a critically important role in helping lawyers through a time of great change, Birken believes. “You have the ability to lead this,” she said. “You have the ability to set the tone. You are basically the arbiters of what’s normal. Don’t forget, you are our culture’s top layer.”

Moving Your Board from Risk Management to Risk Leadership, with nonprofit expert David Renz and moderated by bar leader Patricia Jarzobski (May 2020)

  • In a time of crisis, it may be tempting and comfortable to focus only on fiduciary governance—the most basic kind that follows all the rules and keeps the association running. But Renz believes that at times like this, it’s especially important to also focus on generative governance, which is about “discerning the future” as much as possible. The leadership team should discuss how to leverage the various factors that are at play, deal with the new environment, and take appropriate risks, while still protecting the “core” of the organization, he said. Because things are changing so rapidly, Renz suggested, rather than developing one scenario for what the profession and the world might look like and a perfect plan for how the bar could respond, think of three or four different scenarios and contemplate some possibilities that might hold true under each of them.
  • “We have been handed a gift right now,” Renz said, “though it doesn’t feel like it.” How? Everyone acknowledges that the world will not be quite the same as it was before, he said, which presents an opportunity to talk through how it may be different, and how the bar may need to change. Before the pandemic, Renz believes, the world was already shifting and evolving around associations of all types, and many may have missed some important changes that were occurring in society and among members and their needs and expectations.  “We’re at a unique unfreezing period in time,” he said, meaning that there’s now an imperative to look at how to do things differently.
  • Though many things are changing and will continue to change, Renz said, when we’re on the other side of the pandemic, things will not be 100 percent different from how they were. Along with considering possible scenarios and ways that the bar could adapt, it’s also important for the board to discuss what the organization’s “anchors” are—what remains true and essential about its work, in spite of any changes. “That’s a powerful board conversation to have,” Renz believes. “What really is at the core of us?”

Dynamic Chief Executive-Board Partnerships, with Vicki Clark (June 2020)

  • With COVID-19, the economic recession, and now the nationwide response to racial inequity, these are troubling and changing times, for members and bars alike, Clark said. “Every organization I know, including bar associations, is going to have to redefine their organization,” she believes. “Whatever plans you have need to be revisited.” This may involve changes in the size and complexity of the bar, and it definitely requires an open, collaborative partnership between the president and chief staff executive, as well as the whole board and staff.
  • Clark, not a fan of the traditional one-year term for bar presidents, recommended moving to two-year terms instead. “It’s very difficult to keep changing like that, and to get any traction,” she explained. “You should be letting the strategic plan or the annual plan drive organization, not the president’s priorities.”
  • A good working relationship, especially during a stressful time, has an emotional component as well, Clark said: “We also have to care for each other.” Both the president and the chief staff executive should be respectful toward each other’s work, even if they don’t fully understand it, and should allow each other grace if one or the other is sick or is struggling in some other way. And no one should be on call 24 hours, even during this time that feels like a constant emergency, Clark said—the president and chief staff executive should talk in advance about how they communicate best (by what means, at what times, etc.). “We all have to accommodate and flex and be nimble to make it work, and to make this relationship count,” Clark said.