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May 01, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 5

The Great Resignation: Its effect on bars, and how some bars are making it work for them

By Marilyn Cavicchia

In spring 2022, Kevin Ryan, executive director of the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association, told the board that he was giving everyone on staff a 6 percent raise, now. That’s right: He told the board. He didn’t ask—and no one complained.

Ryan had approached the president and president-elect with this idea before bringing it to the full board. The receptive response, Ryan says, was likely due in part to the fact that the bar’s leaders themselves are seeing the effects of what has been called the Great Resignation or Great Reshuffle, as millions of Americans seek new jobs—or just quit.

The MCBA staff is currently down to five people from what had been nine, with no reduction in workload, which means everyone is feeling swamped and overworked. Ryan says he's doing everything he can to show appreciation—up to and including paying more—to prevent anyone else from leaving, which he believes would seriously hinder the bar’s ability to function.

“We’ve got some people who could retire tomorrow,” he notes, “and we've got some people who could get another job for quite a bit more than what they’re making right now with us.”

Ryan is not alone: All of the state and local bar chief staff executives and associate executive directors quoted in this article were included because they have recently seen a level of turnover that is unusually high, in their experience, and most are finding they need to work harder than ever before to stand out in a crowded job market.

A culmination of a few growing trends?

What’s happening now may be a culmination of some trends that began long before the pandemic started. Recently, bar governance expert and consultant Elizabeth Derrico analyzed five years’ worth of data from the ABA Division for Bar Services State & Local Bars Benchmarks Survey. She found that between 2017 and 2021, there was a general decrease in staff size, and for some it was quite significant. While mandatory state bars saw a staff reduction of only 1.2 percent, for other bars, the decrease was much larger: 14 percent for metropolitan bars, 25 percent for voluntary state bars, and 32 percent for local bars.

Many of these staff reductions may have been the result of strategic decisions or budget cuts. When it comes to changes that occur by an employee’s choice, Candy Cavalier, director of human resources at the American Bar Association, suggests that we may be closer to the beginning of the trend than to the end. Earlier in the pandemic, she notes, people wanted to maintain some familiarity and were more hesitant to change jobs.

“As we emerge from this,” she says, “many opportunities are becoming available, including some more flexible than others, which is encouraging substantial career movement.” This movement is happening, she adds, right when some employees have realized they’re adept in the remote environment, some feel reluctant to resume in-person work because of health or other concerns, and some are finding that they can retire because investments have performed unusually well and because being home all day wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

Another trend that began to garner a lot of attention in 2021: burnout among employees. Many articles on this topic trace back to a survey conducted by job search company Indeed, released in May 2021. Among its findings:

  • Over half (52 percent) of respondents said they were experiencing work burnout, up from 43 percent in a survey conducted before the pandemic.
  • Millennials were the age group that most frequently responded that they were burned out, at 59 percent. More than half (53 percent) were already burned out before the pandemic. Even the least affected age group, Baby Boomers, showed a 7 percent increase in burnout: 31 percent, compared with 24 percent before the pandemic.
  • Two-thirds of workers surveyed (67 percent) said they believed burnout had worsened during the pandemic. 

Deniece Maston, a human resources advisor in the Knowledge Center at SHRM (the Society for Human Resources Management) says another phenomenon bears watching: employees leaving to work not for another employer but for themselves, whether to perform substantially similar tasks with greater flexibility and no oversight or to do something different. 

"Even in the legal industry, people are saying that they're not jumping ship to another law firm, but to become speakers," she observes. "They're doing some alternative careers where they are creating opportunities and now working for themselves, as a result of the pandemic."

Interviews with state and local bar executives seem to bear out the idea that 2021 was the year when things really started to break loose. For example, so far in its fiscal year that began on June 1, 2021, the New Hampshire Bar Association has seen a 36 percent attrition rate, with 11 people leaving the 31-person staff. Paula D. Lewis, the bar’s associate executive director for operations, cites a variety of reasons for the departures: One person moved out of state, she says, three retired, three left for other job opportunities, and four left specifically for other jobs that offer full or partial remote work. All but one of these positions was filled within about a month, she notes. 

Money isn’t everything—but it’s a big something

In seeking replacements for three director-level staff members who retired in December 2020 and into 2021, David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association found that candidates for those positions had higher starting salary expectations than in years past—and that he needed to do what he could to meet those expectations.

While this did affect the bar’s budget, “the reality is, that's the environment that we’re working in today,” Blaner says. “It affects us just like it affects any law firm or any other employer.

“We just had to recognize that's the price of doing business, and if we wanted to fill those positions and get the quality people that we wanted, we had to be able to stand out in this competitive market.”

Conventional wisdom is that bars and similar nonprofits can’t pay their employees as much as those in the for-profit sector. Sometimes, this is painfully true; for example, when one MCBA staff member who wasn’t even looking for a new job heard of a great opportunity at a payroll processing company, there was no way Ryan could match her new salary—it was double what she made at the bar.

The good news, Maston says, is that all the intangibles that go into being a great workplace still matter, even now. Across the country, Maston has heard from SHRM members who are putting a lot of thought into what they can offer besides compensation.

“They're really focusing on what makes their organization different from others. So, it's mission-driven work, the idea that if you stay with me, you get to do this type of work and what impact that will have,” she says, “and trying to introduce them to opportunities that are aligned with some of their personal and career aspirations.”

Sometimes, money and intangibles mingle in a way that prompts turnover or hurts morale. That was the experience of one small bar executive who wishes to remain anonymous. (“They/them” pronouns will be used to protect their identity.) When the bar’s only other staff member was transitioning back from a leave of absence, the board decided that the bar couldn’t afford to bring the employee back up to the same number of hours they had previously worked. In today's brisk job market, the employee soon found another position. The executive director, who notes that they and the employee kept the bar in the black throughout the pandemic and that they believe the bar could easily have afforded the full hours, feels disillusioned and burned out.

“I loved coming to work. I used to take my laptop when I went home sick. I used to check email while I was on vacation. I loved my job,” they say. “Now, all I can think about is my retirement date.”

How can bars compete?

Given how the pandemic changed so many people’s priorities, Maston adds, no employer should rely on their old assumptions about what their employees need and want: “What [SHRM members] are finding is that in order to be competitive, they really have to listen to those job applicants and to their employees too, if they want to retain them.”

The MCBA has reviewed its job postings to try to make them more competitive but is still hearing from few candidates who actually have the qualifications the bar needs—and an effort to work with a placement service that reaches area colleges and universities resulted in no responses. Other bar executives, too, report ads that garnered no response, candidates who were missing key qualifications, and interviews that were canceled at the last minute.

Along with being flexible in terms of starting salary, the ACBA needed to pay an outside recruiting firm, Robert Half, to fill its assistant executive director/chief financial officer position, which requires a CPA. “I've been here a long time—30-and-a-half years,” Blaner says, “and I don't ever remember us having to use an outside recruiting service to fill any of our positions.”

Listening to staff, as Maston recommends, has been a major focus for the ABA recently, Cavalier says: In fact, there’s now an internal Employee Engagement Task Force. The group’s preliminary discussions have focused on ensuring positive career development pathways; strengthening communications and recognition; and encouraging additional training and development, including how to successfully navigate in a full or partially remote environment.

‘I don’t want to work in the office again’

Blaner found that some candidates hoped or assumed that the assistant executive director/CFO position would be entirely remote. While he is able to offer some flexibility—he works in the office five days a week, but most other staff have chosen to work two days remotely—an entirely remote work environment is not something he can provide.

For its part, the NHBA has transitioned back to the expectation that remote work is only for extenuating circumstances, such as awaiting household repairs. “We have had several staff push to work from home,” Lewis says, “but as our executive director notes, NHBA is not a work from home shop. To serve our members to the fullest, we must be at the bar center to collaborate and coordinate face to face.”

Like Blaner, Rebecca Ruppert McMahon found that some candidates for open positions at the Cleveland (Ohio) Metropolitan Bar Association hoped or assumed that the work could be done remotely; McMahon, the bar’s chief executive officer, had to revise job postings to specify that this was not the case.

The CMBA has also lost existing staff members because of the transition to in-person work. “As we got closer to June [2021], once I rolled out what this graduated return to the office was going to look like,” McMahon recalls, “two people turned up and said, ‘I don't want to work in the office again.’” Neither had other jobs lined up yet, McMahon notes, and both have since found fully remote positions outside of the legal field.

Another two people left the 20-person staff in August. At that point, the CMBA work week was three days in the office and two days remote, McMahon says; and the two who left both went to an employer that offered more flexibility with remote work. It wasn’t that they objected to being in the office at all, she notes—but neither wanted to commit to the 50/50 schedule.

A fifth staff person left in December because of transition in a different sense. The manager of the bar’s conference center, which the bar uses to generate nondues revenue as well as for its own meetings, was not averse to the in-person environment, McMahon explains—but she was overwhelmed by the work ahead of her.

“She was so daunted by the prospect of bringing our conference center back to life after two years of shutdown that she said it was more work than she wanted to take on,” McMahon recalls, noting that this former staff member chose to take a job with less responsibility and less post-COVID adjustment required.

The upsides to turnover

Apart from the anonymous small bar executive, others interviewed for this article noted that staff turnover is something they’ve come to accept and even embrace in some ways.

Ryan believes the MCBA is beginning a period of transformational change—and that the skills the bar needed yesterday may not be the same ones needed today and tomorrow. With many large firms no longer paying for membership because they have other sources for CLE, insurance, and other traditional offerings, he says, the bar may start to focus more on its well-known anti-racism work and on professional development for young lawyers, perhaps through a leadership academy.

The NHBA has taken the opportunity to “rethink the staff structure and job descriptions as well as the benefit of new ideas and perspectives from our new team members,” Lewis says.

With so many new people coming into the CMBA staff, McMahon held a series of staff in-service days in February and March 2022. “It was impossible not to lean into the opportunity this [turnover] was going to present in terms of new personalities bringing new experiences, bringing new energy and new passions,” she explains.

Staff members—both old and new—got to know each other via a game called Pick a Side, where people physically moved toward one area of the room or another based on their preferences among various options, such as communications methods when in or out of the office and what time of day someone felt they were at their best.

McMahon developed a grid to show everyone on paper what the various preferences were—and this helped spark something much larger: a dramatic reorganization of the staff structure. By August 2022, the bar will have moved from what McMahon calls “a fairly typical siloed ‘department, department, department’ structure” to one with just two main teams: the external member engagement team, and the internal infrastructure and operations team.

Rigid departments no longer make sense, she says, because of changes in technology and the way people collaborate across their job functions. McMahon is excited about this restructuring and believes she never would have thought of it if she hadn’t been faced with the dramatic turnover that was touched off by the pandemic.

And she doesn’t necessarily think the rapid pace of turnover will end. In fact, she foresees continuing to help great people develop their careers within the bar—and then feeling a twinge as she congratulates them on their next career move, outside of the bar.

“Even if they leave us, I want people to say, 'This is the best place I've ever worked,’" McMahon says. “Leaving is not a sign of failing.”

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