Vol. 37, No. 4

NABE members, bar leaders offer an inside look at leadership academies

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“If 10 years from now or 15 years from now, you have 400 people totally dedicated to your organization, what would that mean to your bar?”

Asking that question was Judge Patrick F. Fischer, president of the Ohio State Bar Association and past president of the Cincinnati Bar Association, both of which offer such programs. As a matter of fact, Fischer is a graduate of one of them: He was in the first class of the Cincinnati Academy of Leadership for Lawyers, which the CBA began 17 years ago.

Among CALL’s more than 400 alumni, Fischer told attendees at the National Association of Bar Executives Midyear Meeting in Dallas, are five out of eight of the last CBA presidents and more than half of the bar’s current trustees.

In a panel discussion moderated by Kalpana Yalamanchili, director of bar services at the Ohio State Bar Association, Fischer was joined by: Regina Wilson, chair-elect of the Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, and Catheryne Pully, local and specialty bar liaison at the Indiana State Bar Association.

Panelists agreed that leadership academies offer real benefit not only to the participants, but also to the bar association—but that the required staff time, leader energy, and monetary support make them long-term investments, not short-term projects.

Big commitment, big reward

When Wilson was first accepted to the Allegheny County bar’s Bar Leadership Initiative, she was taken aback when she was given “a thick binder” detailing all the time commitments. Participants are required to attend meetings of the bar’s Young Lawyers Division, “the big bar,” ACBA’s for-profit subsidiary, and the Allegheny County Bar Foundation. They make presentations to the elderly and to young people regarding legal rights and responsibilities, and they complete a class project.               

The reward? For one thing, free admission to ACBA’s annual bench-bar conference, with hotel stay. Both at that event and all through the ACBA BLI program, Wilson said, the real reward was the chance to see the inner workings of the bar. (Note: This BLI is not affiliated with the ABA’s similarly named Bar Leadership Institute.)             

“The BLI program taught me what it was to be a leader in the Allegheny County Bar Association,” Wilson said, adding that it enabled her to attend meetings that were not open to everyone and to learn firsthand which staff members do what, and how everything gets done.        

At the group’s final meeting, she recalled, Executive Director David Blaner asked the soon-to-be graduates what role they wanted to take on now that they’d seen how the bar association worked, and said he would help them with the application process for those leadership roles.  

For a young lawyer (she participated in the ACBA BLI just one year after graduating from law school), this provided a much-needed shot of confidence, Wilson said.              

“It was very welcoming to have the executive director of the bar say, ‘I will help you achieve your goals in the ACBA,’” she recalls. 

Though the ACBA BLI requires a fairly heavy time commitment for participants, it does not require a monetary commitment as well—it’s free.  Other than the bench-bar event, Wilson said, the backbone of the program was meetings held at lunchtime, with no weekend retreat.    

In contrast, Fischer said a weekend retreat is “crucial” to both the Cincinnati and Ohio bars’ leadership academies. Getting away overnight and spending a lot of time together help build camaraderie, he explained.          

Both the Ohio State Bar Association Leadership Academy and the Indiana State Bar Association Leadership Development Academy charge tuition. In Ohio, the tuition was initially $250, Yalamanchili noted; it then increased to $750 and has been $950 for the past couple of years. In most cases, she said, law firms pick up the tab; scholarships are available for public interest lawyers.             

The OSBA is now considering the idea of waiving the fee for some participants if they commit to being a bar member for the next three years, Yalamanchili added. Indiana’s LDA, now in its second year, initially charged $950 for tuition, Pully said; this has now increased to $1,250, with scholarships available. Some of the scholarship funds this year came from an unusual source, but one that illustrates the value of the program. Four graduates of last year’s LDA were from the Fort Wayne area, Pully said, and the Allen County Bar Association (which serves that region) provided some money for this year—because all four grads are now heavily involved in the Allen County bar.      

Yalamanchili noted that there’s another benefit that can help allay any sticker shock: The OSBA Leadership Academy includes “tons of CLE,” she said.

What it takes

Lest anyone think of this type of program as a revenue producer, Fischer said that even with tuition, a bar association starting a new leadership academy should assume that in the first year or two, it will lose $5,000 to $10,000. That’s one reason, he said, that it’s a long-term investment rather than a quick hit. Yalamanchili estimated that the OSBA has so far put $20,000 to $25,000 into its program.        

Pully conceded that the budget was something the ISBA was “still working on,” particularly given its decision to draw attendees from around the state. This year, the bar contributed $17,000—about a quarter of what the LDA costs to run, and Pully is looking for sponsors to help sustain it.           

She’s also being creative in running the program affordably. One session was held at a National Guard base, she noted; while not exactly a barracks, the accommodations were sparse, and attendees shared rooms. To sweeten the deal, she joked, they did get to ride in a helicopter.           

Also necessary, Pully said, is the right staff. Whoever is involved, she noted, must have “real passion and excitement” for the program. It’s important to have two staff people at every event, Pully believes—though last year, she stretched the definition of “staff” and had her mother help out at some events.          

Volunteers are also critical, the panelists agreed; having such notable people as the president, president-elect, state supreme court judge, or federal judge present at some academy events is a great way to show participants what’s important at the bar—and also that bar leaders and judges consider the academy important enough to make time for it.               

Also needed, Pully said, are energetic volunteers to serve on the committee and make phone calls and send emails. Some committee members might have other things to offer, she noted. One of the ISBA’s committee members is a federal judge who can get attendees in and out of the courthouse for a tour without having to pass through security. Another works in the attorney general’s office, which came in handy this year because three participants also work there, Pully said; the committee member was able to get the office to pay their tuition.

Efforts pay off, both in and out of the bar

Most would likely say that the main purpose of a bar association leadership academy is to help members—usually young or at least new members—feel connected with the bar and more likely to pursue leadership positions within it.    

The panelists did mention that goal, and Wilson and Fischer both said they felt more “invested” in their bar associations as a result of their participation. But there are some other, perhaps less direct benefits for the bar, the panelists said.           

A leadership academy is a prime opportunity to focus on important topics such as professionalism and access to justice, Fischer said, noting that many academy graduates go on to become managing partners at their firms—where they continue to carry that message forward, and to ensure that other lawyers at the firm join the bar, too. 

Wilson noted that in addition to the Young Lawyers Division, she has also used her newfound leadership skills in the Homer S. Brown Division—a formerly freestanding African American bar association that became an ACBA division in 2011.

A tight-knit group

Aside from the CLE credits and the introduction to bar leadership, the panelists mentioned another benefit to this type of program: camaraderie among each year’s participants.

The group support was especially important for Wilson and her classmates at the start of the program, when they were a bit nervous around the bar’s movers and shakers. Eventually, she recalled, they became more comfortable and better able to mingle, but at the first few bar events her class attended, “You’d usually see 15 people standing in a cluster.”

Wilson, who classified herself as an introvert, said she counts as friends several people whom she would likely never have met if it weren’t for the ACBA BLI program.

It’s the same in Indiana, Pully said; when one LDA graduate from last year recently became president of a county bar, many classmates traveled to attend the installation dinner—and for one of them, that meant a drive of several hours.

Those connections can last for years, Fischer noted, and can remain important even once a graduate’s career is well under way. When he ran for judge, he recalled, the people he relied on most were his former CALL classmates.

To learn more about bar association leadership academies, please read “Changing times, changing leadership academies,” also in this issue.