Finding and keeping members. Changing ways of doing business. Wondering about a world populated with goggle-wearing, button-pushing young execs with virtual keyboards.
Yes, the world is changing, and so is the world of lawyers and bar associations and foundations. Preparing for that change and trying to stay relevant for current—and potential—members was on the mind of many bar leaders who gathered in August for the annual NABE/NCBP/NCBF meetings in New York.
“You have to cope with the day-to-day, but you also have to reflect on the next three to five years,” says Paul Gilbert, an attorney and UK-based consultant to the legal community. “You have to be strategic. It’s always going to be the strategic that will undo the operational in the end.”
Gilbert was one of three speakers offering ideas to bar executives on how to navigate the present and future challenges of association operations and leadership. While there were trends and observations to fret about, the speakers said, there was also cause for optimism. A combination of energy, knowledge, hard work—and a little bit of luck—can go a long way toward helping bars to not only survive the future, but to prosper in it, as well.
What do echo-boomers want?
How fast are the world and its technology changing? Michael Rogers, Futurist-in-Residence for the New York Times Co., held his shiny PDA/wireless phone aloft and offered an answer: “This is six months old—so it’s completely obsolete,” he says. “The future occurs so quickly, we’ve all become futurists.”
Known as The Practical Futurist for his regular column at MSNBC.com, Rogers foresees a “virtualization that will change the landscape of America.” It is being driven, he says, by the so-called Millennial Generation, sometimes known as Generation Y or the Echo-Boomers. Essentially, it is the generation born since about 1980.
To get an idea of just how large—and how looming—this generation is, Rogers notes that over the next decade, the U.S. will add 50 million licensed drivers. Previously, the biggest decade-over-decade increase was 36 million, between 1968 and 1978, according to federal government statistics.
And what this generation is looking for, says Rogers, is an emphasis on technology and interactivity via the Internet and other emerging technology that breaks down barriers of time and location. “For (Millennials), calling an 800 number for help is a sign of failure on their parts,” he says.
Among the technological advances he sees on the horizon:
Telepresence, which creates the sense that people from remote locations are in the same room through the use of video screens and Internet transmission. He recalled attending such a meeting that was held recently between two groups in similar-looking boardrooms at different locations. “When it was over, one guy actually got up to shake hands with the screen. That’s how real it is.”
The laptop replacement, which will see the merger of today’s laptop, wireless phone, and iPod into a compact personal device. Today’s desktop PCs, he adds, are destined for dinosaur status soon.
Already happening in other parts of the world, he says, is the “virtual keyboard,” which allows a goggle-wearing user of a wireless phone equipped with a tiny LCD projector to project the image of a keyboard onto a flat surface—and then start typing, as if on a regular keyboard.
Also likely to come soon, he adds, is a surge of low-cost, high-speed wireless data and voice transmission that will allow for almost constant online connectivity, data storage, and software access via the Internet “cloud.”
“These changes are real. They’re permanent,” he says. “The real winners are those groups that can maximize what you do online.” Still, he cautions, such virtualization won’t be total, since “you’ll never really replace the real world.”
While Rogers urges associations to stay on top of the technological curve to reach out to younger members and potential members, he also suggests that bars keep veteran staff and older bar members equally invested in technology.
“We tend to give younger staff members these (technology) jobs. Senior managers tend not to get involved,” he says. “I’m worried that somewhere in there that a lot of knowledge is going to get lost.” Associations that can successfully blend the old with the new, the tech-savvy Millennials with the knowledgeable Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers, will be the ones to succeed in meeting members’ needs.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
For lawyers, law firms and the bar associations and foundations that serve them, Gilbert agrees that “an astonishing period of change” is coming. The challenge, he says, is coping with it and taking advantage of it, rather than fearing it.
“Everything moves on. Everything changes. I don’t think we look at this enough as bar executives,” he says. “We tend to overconcern ourselves with the process (of change). We talk more about planning and less about delivery.”
Gilbert offers bar leaders several ways that they can embrace—and help lead—change in their associations. Among them:
Leaders must drive and continue the change movement. He recommends that bar leaders hold future strategy sessions on a yearly basis that look at the bar’s strengths and weaknesses, examine opportunities to improve, and note how trends can affect the membership. “Demographic impacts can be huge. You have to have a sense of the direction you’re headed in.”
The natural skepticism of many lawyer-members must be overcome. “Manage their strengths, but don’t let their weaknesses become a problem. You don’t have to change just to change . . . but we have to make sure that lawyers aren’t pathologically resistant to change.”
Understand that communication and cooperation are vital to success. “Communication is never done. Just saying something once won’t be good enough. Saying it many times might not be good enough. If you want to get things done, you have to involve people. You just can’t do it by edict.”
The age-old advice about not reinventing the wheel is often true. “You don’t have to have original ideas. A lot of people are doing (the thinking) for you. Find the best practices.”
Set reasonable goals and accomplish them quickly without being bogged down in how you do it. “What are we doing to exceed expectations? We don’t have time for that. Just meet expectations and move on. Meet expectations and move on. Meet expectations and move on.”
Like Rogers, Gilbert foresees a future association membership that values technology, embraces the virtual workplace, and looks to the organization to facilitate, rather than direct, their association activities. But he also sees continued value in interactivity through face-to-face contact and activities and the need for bar leaders to maintain a strategic outlook.
“E-mail is great, but it has no tone of voice. You need energy to effect change,” he says. “The one thing that lawyers will always want is the sense that it’s not just a job that they’re doing.”
Shift in membership recruitment strategies?
In many ways, the current fear of the future and the concern about change is natural, economist Arthur Brooks told bar executives. “Every generation has had bad things to say about the next generation. This is just what every generation does,” he says. “Now, it’s us. Gen-Xers aren’t joiners. Gen-Yers aren’t loyal.”
But Brooks, director of nonprofit studies at Syracuse University, says the growing body of research continues to show that association membership is likely to grow more soon as the newer generations age and seek some security and camaraderie in one of the environments they know best: work.
“Gen-Xers are 43; they’re coming into the sweet spot of their careers,” when they are more likely to join associations, Brooks says. He also notes that surveys have found that proportionally more Gen-Xers got involved in associations at a younger age than their Baby Boomer counterparts—the ones complaining.
Brooks says it is also important for bar association executives to take note of other studies that link the success of professionals to their happiness levels and involvement in associations. A 2004 survey by the University of Chicago found that 45 percent of association members said they were “very happy,” compared to 36 percent of non-association members. Likewise, the average salary of association professionals was $72,100, compared to $47,500 for nonassociation professionals.
That, he says, can be a basis for attracting new bar members.
“More successful people tend to join associations. Associations are where the winners meet,” he says. “But don’t say, ‘Join us, and become a winner.’ Say, ‘You’re a winner, so join us.’”
He adds that, “happiness is the currency we use to make modern-day decisions. Understanding and communicating this will lead to soaring association involvement.”
Brooks has offered his research and advice to several bar associations and organizations. Jack Lockridge, executive director of the Federal Bar Association in Arlington, Virginia, says it was a great benefit in 2006 to a Federal Bar task force looking at the future.
“When we introduced this concept (to the task force), everything changed. It’s probably the most successful task force I ever worked with,” Lockridge says. “It made us look at ideas that we ought to be addressing.”
It’s important, Brooks adds, for associations to work hard to match their benefits to the population they’re serving. He also advises bars to not only have a young lawyers group, but also to create specific seats on the board of directors that must be filled by younger members.
It’s a positive step for the association’s future, he says.
“Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers need to rock the boat, because we need to know what they’re saying,” he says. “We have some very good things on the horizon, and it’s just beginning.”