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November 17, 2021 Vol. 47, No. 2

What’s new? Recent chief staff executives reflect on the past year, what's ahead in 2022

By Marilyn Cavicchia

Renovating and moving into a new bar headquarters. Undertaking an ambitious racial justice effort. Starting a podcast. Rebranding and redesigning the website and database. Keeping the entire staff employed throughout a seemingly endless pandemic.

All of that, and more—all while learning the ropes as a new bar executive director or chief executive officer.

Bar Leader recently spoke with some relatively new chief staff executives, all of whom started in their current position during or shortly before COVID-19, to see how the past year or so has been for them and what they look forward to in 2021. Taking part in this conversation were:

Here is a summary of what they had to say about their time as chief staff executive so far—and about the year ahead.

When you look back on this past year, what are some things you're especially proud of, in the work the bar has done? In anything the staff internally has done? And in what you personally have accomplished?

Susan McCourt Baltz: I am most proud of the fact that we kept going! We provided educational and networking opportunities, we still pumped money and food into a needy market, we still made valuable connections to do good in the community. We adjusted and still found ways to connect with one another. 

Wanda A. Calvin Claiborne: One of the highlights for the Bar Association of Montgomery County has been its serious look at racism. In conjunction with the Bar Foundation of Montgomery County and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Racial Justice Council was formed to address many issues in the county, throughout the state and the country. Our bar association, our bar foundation, and our council understood that gone are the days of writing letters condemning such acts, and a different, more grassroots approach was needed to address systemic racism. A project was created (the 20 Weeks in 2020 Challenge) where members pledged to actively participate in monthly topics such as allyship and mass incarceration. For four weeks, we would share information for people to read, watch and listen to and then round out the month with a Zoom discussion. This program is now being duplicated by others and continues with monthly or bimonthly programs.

We also began rebranding efforts for both the association and foundation. The first thing done was logos, which was another huge undertaking. 

The team has remained busy: Recently, we took a course for every staff member to get our Mental Health First Aid certificate.

Brianna Gohlke-Clausen: My honest answer … I am most proud of getting through it! Perhaps that seems like a low bar (no pun intended), but this past year has been hard, and I think anyone should be proud of making it through, regardless of if they are new to their job or have been in it for 30 years. 

More tangibly, our team at the bar is a small staff of 3.5, but I am proud to say we kept everyone employed through the pandemic. This is a huge success and is in large part a shout out to the faithfulness of our board of trustees and their commitment to the organization. I also used the first year to personally meet with over 30 key stakeholders. And as a board and staff team, we undertook a capital campaign, delivered a virtual gala, began a strategic planning process, initiated the rollout of a virtual networking platform for our members, and maintained our normal business operations—because why not take on a few new things in your first year?

Alahna O’Brien: The biggest accomplishment for our association and myself this past year was completing our building project right in the middle of the pandemic: We renovated an old garage into a great new space for our attorneys. We broke ground in February 2020, right before the pandemic. To complete a building project in the middle of the pandemic was crazy—there were so many obstacles in regard to supplies from the builders and getting workers in the building with the state’s COVID guidelines. I had to do everything virtually, from construction meetings, to ordering furniture and designing our new technology systems. 

One of the blessings that happened with the pandemic was designing our technology right in the middle of it all. We knew we needed to make changes from the original way we set up our conference rooms: We needed to incorporate better technology with cameras and speakers so our attorneys and committees could feel comfortable coming to meetings whether that would be in person or virtually. I can truly say our office is equipped to broadcast live presentations or have people in the building while others are on Zoom.

Jennifer Otchy: Through the past 18 months, I’m especially proud of the ways our association has pivoted and adapted, leaning into challenges and seizing opportunities. During this time, we rebranded and redesigned our entire website and database. We upgraded our technology, creating new efficiencies for our team and our members. The new DBA website provides members with an entirely new member experience, delivering content they need and want, including a personalized portal with easy access to all their sections, CLEs, publications, and more. We’ve added virtual meeting options through Zoom and invested in technology that allows us to conduct hybrid meetings more effectively.

Our board and leadership remain committed to our members, as everyone in our association is a critical part of its future. Rather than going back to business as normal, we developed a forward strategy, looking for opportunities in the challenges.

Craig Shoup: I am extremely proud of my team. With our limited (three full-time and one part-time) team, we have started a podcast interviewing members of our bar about why they became a lawyer and fun facts about them. In house, we have recorded, edited and produced them for YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify and everywhere you get podcasts. We also filmed, edited, and produced an unveiling of several portraits of legal leaders in diversity. The Florida Bar provided the portraits as part of a traveling exhibit, but we produced the video to be the first to unveil.

What are some things that you've needed to learn or develop in your new role because of the ways it differs from your previous work experience?

Brianna Gohlke-Clausen: The dance that exists between the executive and the board is something I am still learning. When do we tango, everything intertwined? When are we two-stepping in unison? When do we tell one another, “It’s time for your solo?” And when is it appropriate to say, “Thank you, but no thank you; my dance card is full right now?” 

Alahna O’Brien: Just learning the profession, the lingo, and how things work. For instance, I did not know attorneys need to have so many hours of learning credits yearly. 

Craig Shoup: Fundraising/sponsorship sales. I had never had any experience with this, but our previous executive director, Jim Bailey, told me that when you have a great product, the sale of it is easy. We do have a great product, and I am growing every day in my skillset here.

Susan McCourt Baltz: I have had to learn on my feet about the operations aspect of running a business. Specifically, IT, HR and accounting. I learned a long time ago that you hire good people and let them do their job, so that is what I have tried to do. I inherited good people but also hired three.

Wanda A. Calvin Claiborne: I think the biggest thing for me was understanding all of the financial aspects when trying to stay on top of three totally different entities (association, foundation and pro bono), each with different bylaws and boards.

What and/or who has been especially helpful as you've acclimated to the bar, to your new role as chief staff executive, and to the bar world (if this, too, was new to you)?

Jennifer Otchy: As CEO of the Dayton Bar Association, I’ve found a wonderful mix of everything I enjoy about the bar world [after 15 years as DBA CLE director], but also, I have learned a great amount while working with incredible people. Our board leadership is second to none, and I am fortunate to work with a team that is collaborative and innovative. Also, building strong relationships with other bar associations and peers has been invaluable. These relationships have been vital to my growth and professional development, and I am grateful for their friendship and support.

Brianna Gohlke-Clausen: I can’t express how grateful I am for the Executive Committee within our association. They have been so supportive and have been wonderful every time I connect with them.  They have offered me support, encouragement, and freedom to explore and brainstorm. They have also helped me to decode some organizational norms and individual behaviors I was unfamiliar with. Their support has been incredible.

Alanha O’Brien: The president when I got hired was so helpful. I could call her anytime, and she would always answer my questions or find them out. I never felt like I was bothering her. I feel comfortable calling her a friend now!

Craig Shoup: We have a great group of executive directors in Florida who collaborate. Braulio Rosa from the Broward County Bar Association, Melissa Byers from the St. Petersburg Bar Association, Jenny Brown from the Orange County Bar Association, Jeff Nall from the Escambia-Santa Rosa Bar Association, Holly Lipps from the Sarasota County Bar Association, Carla Tharp Brown from the Palm Beach County Bar Association, and John Kynes from the Hillsborough County Bar Association.

Susan McCourt Baltz: The leadership of my bar, including my predecessor, have been invaluable to me. I am very well supported and surrounded by people who are passionate about the bar's mission. They want the bar association to succeed and therefore want me to succeed. My staff has helped me with the historical wisdom and to avoid landmines. 

Wanda A. Calvin Claiborne: This wasn’t completely new to me because of my past life at the Maryland State Bar Association, but I was super blessed to have a great relationship with the past BAMC ED, who answered all my questions and gave me insight and suggestions. Her name is Julie, so I started sending her messages that just had the subject line WWJD (What Would Julie Do?). I also couldn’t have asked for two better people to work with as BAMC presidents: Thomas DeGonia and Heather Hostetter were and still are great supporters. They are the kind of people who make you happy that you do what you do.

What have been some of your biggest challenges as CSE or for the bar as a whole in the past year, and how have you tackled those? Have any turned out to be opportunities as well?

Jennifer Otchy: Initially, the biggest challenges we faced were transitioning to virtual platforms and formats. We rapidly transitioned the DBA’s operations and instituted a viable remote work arrangement for the DBA staff team without compromising access to important resources that the DBA provides to our members.

We adapted to new technologies to meet a virtual world. The surprise in doing that is getting new engagement from portions of our membership that we hadn’t seen much engagement from in the past. The flexibility of virtual hybrid programming provided more opportunities and connected us with members we haven’t had much interaction with previously.

We have continued to offer this hybrid approach of both in-person and virtual programming with great success. The DBA has built a virtual community and network that is thriving. We will continue to assess our members’ needs, preparing our association for necessary growth and changes.

Brianna Gohlke-Clausen: Ellen Miller [interim co-executive director at the California Lawyers Association and president of the National Association of Bar Executives] just wrote an article on formerly being a “no” person and the challenges that may have created for her. I read that article this morning and said to myself, “Well, shoot: I’m a ‘yes’ person,” and that’s left me with an entirely different bag of issues. I am acutely aware I’ve likely said “yes” to more than I should have, and I am still learning how I can be successful in my role, while not taking on every initiative right away and also accepting that if an idea from a member or committee does not come to fruition, that is not entirely reflective on me. I think I might call Ellen and ask if she can share a bit of her “no” skills with me.

Wanda A. Calvin Claiborne: I’m really fortunate. Every single challenge made me so much better (not perfect). I missed deadlines, filled out the wrong information on forms, etc., but I learned, studied, and researched until I got it! Oddly, reading handwritten notes by various officers, members and former EDs provided a lot of help. Learning everything and navigating COVID-19 was indeed the thing that was ever present.

Susan McCourt Baltz: I started during a year of uncertainty. Events were virtual, employees were hybrid, no one knew what to plan or not plan. As soon as we signed a contract in ink to do our biggest conference of the year, the delta variant hit and we had to make quick decisions. We decided to move forward, keep doing everything we could do to be there for our members, our partners and our staff. We followed our board's directives and our members' needs. We have been lucky to have so many people who want us to continue on. 

When you started, was there a clear "charge" for what you needed to do in your first year or so? Or has this been a more gradual understanding as you've settled in?

Alahna O’Brien: I was very lucky to walk into a bar that the previous ED was retiring from, which helped with transitioning. She worked for a month with me when I started. 

Wanda A. Calvin Claiborne: My clear charge was to learn everything I possibly can about anything I might want to change, add to or delete. I think being too clear from the start would have had me fall flat on my face. I had to learn and am still learning how the association and foundation work—what makes it tick!  Some things were very clear, but they were one-offs. Now, I am just getting settled and finding my niche.

Susan McCourt Baltz: I was told to "get in there and shake things up." Given that I started during COVID, I really did get an opportunity to sit back and learn during my first year. I have had the opportunity to get to know people and ease into the job. That has been a blessing and an opportunity to listen and learn instead of acting on impulse. 

Brianna Gohlke-Clausen: The capital campaign was a clear charge. I walked into blueprints, a request for quotes, and a year’s worth of ideation, but there had not yet been a financial ask made. As for the rest, the strategic plan was three years out of date, and there was common knowledge among most stakeholders that “The bar is great, but something will need to be different going forward—but we aren’t sure what.”

What's next for your bar, in member-driven projects, internal staff work, and things that you personally want to accomplish?

Craig Shoup: I want to continue to increase our digital content. From podcasts to special programs and CLEs, I believe that we will continue to have a want from members for more digital content.

Susan McCourt Baltz: Coming from a marketing background, I really want to make a push into the digital world. I would like to find a way to better cross-sell our committees and sections to one another and increase participation in our events, membership and within the organization as a whole. 

Jennifer Otchy: One of our goals is to be more strategic and targeted with our messaging and marketing to our members. We want to engage different segments of our membership in different ways, providing value where they want it.

Regarding membership, we have introduced an all-inclusive membership option, which includes all access to DBA CLE programming. We have found many members like our “Unlimited CLE Membership,” as it provides great value and the high-quality CLE programming at one low cost. This all-inclusive model is something we hope to grow, as it has propelled increased member engagement and investment in the DBA.

Brianna Gohlke-Clausen: We are hopeful to have most of the funds for our capital campaign raised by the end of this year or the first quarter of 2022. If we can pull it off, we can take the big jump to bringing the vision of our office space becoming a member and community space. That will be a tangible example of the narrative we continue to share with members and prospective members, that we are here to support and connect them to one another and our community.

Personally, I am hopeful to find some time for a few of my own hobbies in the year to come. My husband and I bought a fixer-upper a few years ago and took a break on projects during COVID and my new job in an effort to not live in so much physical chaos, but we are ready to attack another room in 2022!

Wanda A. Calvin Claiborne: First, we want to expand our branding efforts. We know that branding is more than a new logo. We want to attract younger members while keeping our seasoned members engaged. Working with the team is one of my favorite things to do. We want to support each other and put great minds together to create a better tomorrow, every single day!

When you look ahead to 2022, what are you looking forward to?

Jennifer Otchy: One of our larger member-driven projects is our new Social Justice Initiative. As bar associations across the country have taken steps to further racial justice, our bar assembled a task force to address all types of social justice, including, but not limited to racial justice. It is our firm belief that lawyers play an important role in the advancement of social justice in our community, and the DBA is well-suited to provide leadership on social justice issues. Looking ahead to 2022, we are excited to launch this initiative and look forward to having critical conversations and actions to effect meaningful change.

Craig Shoup: We were one of the first voluntary bars in Florida to return to in-person/hybrid meetings. I am looking forward in 2022 to continuing to find the balance between the convenience of online meetings and the need and value of in-person.

Alahna O’Brien: Since I started right before the pandemic, I am just looking forward to being able to interact with our members at more in-person events and getting back to a normal calendar! Also, our Planning Committee met recently, and we are continuing to work on our strategic plan. 

Wanda A. Calvin Claiborne: I am looking forward to the world opening up again. I am only blocks away from many of our members, yet I haven’t been able to see them in person. 

I am looking forward to wrapping up our strategic planning and putting new thoughts and ideas into play. I am looking forward to vacation outside of my house!

Susan McCourt Baltz: I am looking forward to getting to know NABE, Conference of Metropolitan Bar Associations and ABA networks and my peers in other markets! I want to meet people in person and use Zoom as an afterthought. I want our bar association to be flooded with unmasked people in a safe environment!

Brianna Gohlke-Clausen: We’ve started a handful of initiatives in 2021: capital campaign, strategic planning, virtual communities. I am looking forward to bringing a few of these to completion. They are three items that will really lay a renewed foundation for us as an association, and I am excited to see how they will hopefully bring clarity and affirmation to who we are.

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