Vol. 37, No. 4

No staff? Small staff? Presidents share how they accomplished big things for the bar

by Marilyn Cavicchia

As any leader of a smaller bar would probably tell you, being small in size does not mean being small in plans, in importance to members, or in time commitment.

And even some larger bars are relatively small in staff—how do elected leaders at unstaffed or minimally staffed bar associations make sure the bar’s big work gets done?

That was the subject of a workshop at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute, in Chicago this past March. Moderated by Elizabeth M. Derrico, associate director of the ABA Division for Bar Services, the panel discussion featured: Erika E. Anderson, past president of the New Mexico Women’s Bar Association; Diana Sen, past president of the Hispanic National Bar Association and member of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services; and Mehpara A. Suleman, immediate past president of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Chicago Area.

Small staff, big time commitment

So as not to alarm the soon-to-be bar presidents in the room, Suleman said she wished she could report that she’d spent only 10 to 15 hours a week on presidential duties—but in reality, she spent much more time than that.

That was Sen’s experience, too: “I felt like every night, I was working until 2 a.m.,” she said, noting that this applied to Mondays through Fridays, with an additional, shorter shift on Sundays. It felt necessary to put in so many hours, she noted, because the bar was undertaking a major, nationwide project in the area of foreclosure issues for Hispanic and Latino populations.

And while many large firms are accommodating toward bar presidents’ schedules, Sen’s workplace—a nonprofit civil rights organization where she did not have an assistant—could be flexible only “up to a point.”

Anderson, who oversaw the revival of her bar association after a dormant period of several years, said she also noticed her increased workload in ways other than time: She had 50 to 100 bar-related emails each day. It’s important, she advised, to have an infrastructure in place to handle all that extra correspondence.

Derrico noted that some bars set up for the president a separate email account—whether through Google, Yahoo, the president’s firm, or the bar association—just for bar-related business. It’s easier to manage all those extra emails, she explained, if they’re at least going to a separate place.

Suleman said one of her biggest lessons was that in most cases, email can wait—and that it’s important to set some boundaries even during high-demand times. Her bar’s biggest fundraiser is in conjunction with the installation of the new president—“If you don’t raise enough money,” she explained, “your whole year is shot.”

During the stressful time leading up to her installation, Suleman made sure to schedule a one-hour break each day. Nonetheless, she said, “I was one of those sad people at the gym, on the elliptical [machine] and answering phone calls.”

But it was time well spent, she noted: Her installation fundraiser brought in a record net profit.

Anderson said that one real help is that there are peaks and valleys in bar association work. She did put in “lots of nights and weekends,” she noted, and sometimes spent five or six hours a day on particular projects. But then there would be a lull, she added, during which the only task that was required was to send and answer a few emails.

Preparation saves time

There are limits to how much you can prepare to be bar president, Suleman believes. She had been second vice president and then first vice president and had been involved in a lot of different aspects of the bar—but the position of bar president is very different from those, she said.

“Everything falls on you,” she explained. “Everybody thinks you can solve everything for them.”

Still, the panelists said, there are a few things you can do in advance. For example, take a look at the bar’s bylaws, Anderson suggested, and think about your goals for the year ahead.     

Sen advised narrowing down to one or two key projects: For her, this was the foreclosure and mortgage project, which took her and other HNBA leaders across the country. It was important for the bar to meet with Hispanic lawyers in such states as Alabama, Arkansas, and Minnesota, she noted, so that people could be helped in areas other than New York City, where Sen is based.

Another important part of preparation, Anderson noted, is to look at your volunteers’ different personalities and strengths and use that knowledge to guide your appointments—having the right people on the right committees can be a great help in making sure the work gets done, she said.

At the beginning of her presidency, Suleman had lunch or dinner with every board member (there are about 20) as well as a couple of judges, to talk over a few ideas and some key dates and to help make connections between projects and potential volunteers.

Anderson’s bar held an off-site retreat for the 23 board members, all new, many of whom didn’t know each other. A facilitator helped the newly relaunched bar revise its mission and vision statements. The bar also had each committee draft its own job descriptions and policies, which Anderson said was “empowering,” in that it gave each committee the responsibility for determining how best to work.             

Sen talked to her board members and mapped out the year on paper, so that it could be distributed to volunteers. “We could look at it throughout the year,” she noted, “which helped us to focus.”

If she had it to do over, though, Sen might slightly change how she handled this document. Because the board has 70 members, she had a much smaller “kitchen cabinet” help her draft the plan, which she then gave to the whole board about a week before the start of her presidency. Many on the board thought her plan was too ambitious; she then had to prove that it wasn’t. It would have been better, she said, to talk to them about the plan further in advance in order to gain their buy-in.

It’s important to be clear, Derrico said, regarding expectations for board members and other volunteers—something that leaders of smaller bars are sometimes afraid to communicate lest people back out once they know what the job entails.

“Even if you have a staff,” Derrico noted, “the majority of the work is still volunteer-driven.”  Consider holding a board retreat or at least having a conversation at the first board meeting regarding expectations, she recommended.

One volunteer position that is especially important if the bar doesn’t have an executive director, or if it doesn’t have much additional staff, is general counsel, Sen said. The counsel whom she appointed has a lot of experience and is adept with strategy and vision, she noted: “He always sees things 10 steps ahead.”

There was another way this particular general counsel was helpful during her term, Sen added: He had, and shared, “extra resources”—including an assistant who was willing to do some work for the bar.

Getting the most from volunteers

If you don’t have staff to help you find good volunteers, panelists said, it’s especially important that you reach out and let members know what opportunities are available. Toward the middle to end of her presidency, Sen said, one member—who was aware of all she was doing, and all the different projects that needed help—told her that unless it was in writing, most other members wouldn’t know these things.

Sen began to keep a diary, listing every event she went to and all the different objectives that were involved; she published it as a president’s message and found it very useful in getting more volunteers to participate. If she could go back, Sen said, she would do something like that from the very beginning. She continued adding to the diary right up to her last day in office, she said, noting that each entry focused first on what the bar had achieved and on what certain volunteers had accomplished, with a mention at the end regarding what she personally had done.

Once you have volunteers in place, how do you keep them on track?

One “annoying but effective” way Suleman did this was to get to know all the chairs and committee members and follow up with them each week. A phone call was more effective than an email, she noted, and her message to any who were lapsing in their duties was, “Can I follow up for you, or have someone else do it?” This was a way to put people on notice, she explained, and also give them a judgment-free way out if they really were too busy to complete an assigned task.

Another way to handle those volunteers who just aren’t doing the work, Sen recommended, is to find one who is doing what he or she is supposed to, and have that volunteer give a report. This “makes the others look bad,” she said, noting that this little bit of shame—but delivered subtly and politely—can help get stalled volunteers moving again.

If that doesn’t work, she noted, you can step up the “benign shaming” by assigning someone else to do the task that the balky volunteer is not doing.

You can also be more realistic in your own expectations, Sen advised: Build in more time for each assignment, in recognition that many volunteers might miss their first or even their second deadline.

“I think people don’t intend not to do work,” Sen said, noting that your aim should be to make it easier for that well-meaning but busy volunteer to follow through—or to find a different way to serve. There’s nothing wrong, she said, with telling the volunteer that the current assignment doesn’t seem to be a good fit and asking if there’s something else he or she would rather do.

Sometimes, Suleman added, a change in structure might make a big difference. Her bar used to have co-chairs, but this meant that both chairs of some committees would email her to say the other one wasn’t doing his or her job. “It was out of control,” Suleman said; a switch to chair and vice chair brought much more clarity regarding who was responsible for what.

An audience member mentioned that some of her board members have been on the board for many years and seem to believe—despite many communication efforts to the contrary—that this is an honorary position, with no work expected.

In that case, Derrico advised, a change in governance policy could be effective. “Even small bars need term limits on the board,” she said.

Who else can help?

In general, bar associations find it helpful to collaborate with other groups as long as they are not in direct competition; this might be especially true for bars with minimal to no staff.

One way Sen encouraged collaboration with other, like-minded organizations, she said, was to send them the same bar association diary that she made available to her bar’s members.

Suleman made it a priority to attend other bars’ events, or to send someone in her place if she couldn’t go. One of her aims, she said, was to highlight what her bar was doing and make it known to other, bigger bars—and not just those for Asian Americans or other lawyers of color. She “pretty much stalked” the president of the Illinois State Bar Association, she joked—which resulted in a lunch meeting that then led to some joint programming.

Suleman, who established a community relations committee during her term, also reached out to all the leaders of Asian American bar associations in the Chicago area, to coordinate a single Lunar New Year event that had more impact than if each bar had held its own small event.

It was important that Anderson attend a lot of events with other bar associations, she said, as a way to show that the bar was “back, and doing things.” It helped a great deal, she noted, that she is also on New Mexico’s board of bar commissioners, so she could attend events in that capacity and also get the word out regarding the women’s bar.

Besides possible collaborations, Sen mentioned another reason it’s a good idea to be aware of what other bar associations are doing: Many ideas can be borrowed, and scaled down for your bar if necessary. The HNBA’s mortgage project was adapted from a similar, more involved program at the Queens County (N.Y.) Bar Association, she noted.

Derrico said this willingness to share ideas is a hallmark of the bar association community, and that the many resources available from the Division for Bar Services (including this publication) are a great way to learn about programs and best practices that you might want to replicate.

A nearby law school can be another great partner, the panelists said. When the women’s bar learned that a New Mexico law school was bringing in U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, Anderson contacted the dean, whom she knew, and asked if her bar could sponsor a brunch.

The dean said yes, and the resulting event offered a chance for attendees to ask Kagan questions one on one. “Every judge was there,” Anderson said, adding that many other bars and other organizations asked the dean about similar events but were too late. By reaching out, she said—and by getting there first—the women’s bar made a name for itself, in part through “big coverage” in the state bar’s publication.  After that, she added, other bar associations began to contact the women’s bar to partner on various programs.

There’s another way that a law school connection can be helpful: Both Anderson and Suleman suggested contacting area law schools to see if there are students who would be interested in doing some work for the bar. It’s a good idea to pay the law student intern, Suleman noted, but this would still be more affordable than hiring a staff person or temp.

 As another source of help, Suleman again mentioned the Division for Bar Services—particularly, she said, it was helpful to bring Derrico in to assist the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Chicago Area with strategic planning aimed at ensuring continuity.

Wherever the help comes from, the panelists agreed, even the president of a minimally staffed or unstaffed bar does not need to go it alone.