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March 01, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 4

2021 Benchmarks Survey spotlight: A quick overview of membership questions and responses

Each year, the Benchmarks report, produced by the ABA Division for Bar Services, offers a wealth of information about bars—from bars themselves, via a nationwide survey. The topics vary from one year to the next; the most recent publication, released in December 2021, is 2021 State and Local Bar Benchmarks: Membership, Administration and Finance.

In this issue of Bar Leader, we highlight some key Benchmarks findings in the area of membership. In the January-February 2022 issue, we covered finance; in a future issue, we’ll address administration.

Voluntary bars adopt new methods for dues collection

Both automatic debit and opt-out debit seem to be gaining traction as ways that voluntary state bars and local bars collect membership dues. For example:

  • The percentage of voluntary state bars using automatic debit has increased from 16 percent in 2016 to 35 percent in 2021.
  • In that same time period, the percentage of local bars using opt-out debit has increased from 5 percent to 13 percent.
  • From 2019 to 2021, the percentage of local bars using automatic debit has increased from 13 percent to 25 percent.

While mandatory state bars seem to be largely exempt from this trend, it’s notable that among mandatory state bars with 5,000 to 9,999 members, 20 percent in the 2021 survey reported they use opt-out debit. No mandatory state bars in other size categories indicated they use opt-out debit, and no mandatory state bars of any size reported they use automatic debit.

Different approaches to dues models among different types, sizes of bars

Bars of all types appear to be open to trying some changes to their dues models: Twelve percent of mandatory state bars, 10 percent of voluntary state bars, and 6 percent of local bars said they had altered their dues/fees structure in the past two years. When asked if they were considering a change, 15 percent of mandatory state bars, 10 percent of voluntary state bars, and 17 percent of local bars said they were.

There are some interesting variations in how bars currently handle some aspects of their dues/fees structure. For example:

  • While 67 percent of mandatory state bars in the largest size category (50,000+ members) and 57 percent in the second largest (20,000 to 49,999) indicated that they gave a discount for financial hardship, this was indicated by only 17 percent in the next size category (10,000 to 19,999) and by no mandatory state bars that are smaller than that.
  • Similarly, 100 percent of voluntary state bars with 20,000+ members and with 10,000 to 19,999 members gave a discount for this reason, compared with 38 percent for voluntary state bars with fewer than 10,000 members. (The variations among local bars were less noteworthy.)
  • In recent years, some experts have recommended a tiered benefits model; among voluntary state bars and local bars, it appears that those of medium size are most likely to have adopted this idea. Among voluntary state bars, 80 percent of those with 10,000 to 19,999 members said they had a tiered benefits model, compared with 17 percent in the largest of the three size categories and none in the smallest. Among local bars, those in the 4,000-8,499 category were the most likely to offer a tiered benefits model (25 percent, compared with 14 percent in the largest size category, and 12 percent, 8 percent, and 4 percent, respectively, in smaller size categories for local bars).

Small membership declines for many bars

While mandatory state bars all said they either remained stable in membership or saw increases, the same was not true of voluntary state bars or local bars. The most frequent response among voluntary state bars (45 percent) was that their membership was down by 1 to 3 percent. The next most frequent response (25 percent) was that membership had stayed about the same. Among local bars, too, the decrease of 1 to 3 percent was the most frequent response (28 percent), and the second most frequent was that membership had stayed about the same (26 percent).

Large voluntary state bars and small local bars were especially apt to experience a membership decline of 1 to 3 percent. Among voluntary state bars with more than 20,000 members, 67 percent gave this response, as did 54 percent of local bars with fewer than 700 members.

Among voluntary state bars and local bars, retention rates have remained relatively stable since 2009; in 2021, the average retention rate among voluntary state bars was 93 percent, and among local bars, it was 89 percent.

Written responses yield further membership insights

Along with the quantitative answers, Benchmarks respondents wrote responses to many questions. Among their membership-related comments were:

  • one state bar that offers 30 percent off its active member fee for those who do at least 400 hours of pro bono;
  • another state bar at which the executive director has the discretion to waive a member’s dues because of personal hardship; and
  • two bars indicating that they offer “two spirit” (traditionally a Native American term) among the gender options in the demographic information they request.

Want more detail?

The above was only a snapshot; in the full Benchmarks publication, you’ll find several more membership-related questions and much more detail, including breakdowns by bar size and how specific bars answered. To be fully informed, make sure to order your copy of Benchmarks.

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