Are we ready to make a decision?
Since his retirement from the State Bar of Arizona, Phelps has worked as a knowledge specialist and coach at the Arizona State University Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation. Studies from Lodestar suggest that the optimal size for a nonprofit board is seven members (though Phelps himself prefers nine), and that “for every one member over seven, your decision-making capability goes down by 10 percent.” Those with somewhat larger boards might take heart from a law review article from UC Hastings College of Law, which said that for larger bars in particular, a 15-member board may be ideal.
However many board members there are, said one attendee who is a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, it’s important that each know that the board is not a legislative body and that all decisions must be based on the mission and on what’s best for the bar, not necessarily for various factions within it. This is sometimes difficult for board members to understand, the attendee said, especially if they are elected rather than appointed. Phelps noted, too, that at mandatory bars, board members’ decisions are sometimes clouded by a desire to “protect their members from the bar.”
One attendee mentioned that his bar has a two-meeting rule for some decisions, meaning that at one board meeting, the issue is laid out, and the board commits to making the decision at the next meeting. Another attendee said that the board might ask a committee to do some further work between the meetings to aid in making the decision.
Phelps said he does like the two-meeting rule—but that he’s also a fan of Colin Powell’s 40/70 rule, which says you only need between 40 and 70 percent of the information you could possibly have in order to make a decision. If you gather less than 40 percent of the information, you’re being reckless, Powell believed, but if you delay the decision until you have more than 70 percent of the information, there’s a good chance you’ll miss an opportunity. Phelps, a lawyer himself, said this can be difficult for bar board members.
“As lawyers, we want 98 percent of the information,” he said, “and we want 100 percent if we can get it.”
Sometimes, Phelps said, a decision must be made that same day, and in terms of the information, “you gotta go with what you’ve got.” If, for example, the bar is being sued or the state legislature has introduced a bill to eliminate it, it would be a bad idea for someone to invoke the two-meeting rule and make a motion to table.
“If ever there was a time to be adaptable and flexible,” he said, “after the past two years, that time is now.”