Vol. 39, No. 3

The big idea: Amidst changes in the legal profession, bar associations keep up ties with large firms

by Robert J. Derocher

Think it’s easy for medium and large metro bar associations to hang on to that reliable marker of big-firm membership, the all-associates-in “100 Percent Club?”

Think again, says longtime legal profession consultant Jordan Furlong.

“The 100 Percent Club? There are law firms out there cutting free coffee,” he says. “If they’re doing that, they’re not going to be spending several hundred dollars apiece for lawyers to join the local bar association.”

While some bars still successfully rely on the 100 Percent Club to boost membership, many bar executives and legal consultants like Furlong agree it’s a fading vestige of days gone by, a symbol of financial and social change in the relationship between big law firms and the bars that have counted on them for support. Big-firm financial backing of bar associations is no longer a given, they say, as firms tighten their fiscal belts by trimming expenses—as well as associates. Toss in big-firm consolidations that have added to job cuts, as well as losses in longtime local firm/association connections, and it adds up to a worrisome issue for many medium and large metro bars.

It’s a shift, they say, that requires a similar shift in how bars need to cultivate and maintain big-firm members, while also accommodating the growing ranks of solo and small-firm practitioners. It is an issue generating plenty of discussion among bar leaders, perhaps especially—though not exclusively—those at metro bars, as they confront the continued evolution of the legal profession.

‘A much more fragmented profession’

“Bar associations are facing some challenges. It’s a much more fragmented profession,” says Furlong, an Ottawa, Ontario-based principal at Edge International who speaks frequently on the future of the legal profession in Canada and the United States. “The relationship between [big law firms and bar associations] is changing. All those underlying assumptions of the past are gone.”

It begins, he says, with the assumption that large firms will direct their associates to join the local bar and pay their dues. The most recent statistics from legal industry consulting firm Altman Weil showed 62 law firm acquisitions through the first nine months of 2014, slightly ahead of the pace of 2013’s record of 88 acquisitions.

Quite often, Furlong says, cost cutting accompanies such mergers and acquisitions, putting bar association dues—often seen as optional spending—in the crosshairs. But it’s not just that large firms’ profits and financial resources are under more pressure than ever before, he adds: Decision makers often conclude that bars are not offering enough unique or helpful resources.

“Looking for CLE? The firms are saying, ‘We provide our own CLE, thank you very much,’” says Furlong, who blogs on the future of the profession at www.law21.ca. “Then you have associations saying it’s the firm’s ‘professional obligation’ to join. I’m sorry, but laying a guilt trip is not the most professional way to attract members.”

It is increasingly a “mixed relationship,” agrees Peter Zeughauser, a legal industry strategist in Newport Beach, Calif., and a principal at Zeughauser Group. While local bars often provide good marketing and educational opportunities for large firms and their associates, there is a “Balkanized bar” that doesn’t meet the national and international needs of growing large firms, he says.

“The question [from big firms] for bar associations is, ‘How much bang for our buck can we get?’” Zeughauser adds. “Dues can be expensive, especially for lawyers licensed in multiple states. [Bar associations] have to spend more time refining their market propositions.”

The power of sponsorship and networking

At the Metropolitan Bar Caucus, the current and future impact of evolving large-firm finances, demographics, and demands is “something we talk about all the time,” says Zoe Linza, executive director of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis and an MBC Executive Committee member at large. “It’s the big firms who remain an important part of the financial security of the bar association. You want sponsors for events? Go to the big firms.”

And the changes at many firms mean that more bars have to “scramble to make up for the revenue loss,” says Jane Leslie Dalton, the MBC’s immediate past president and a past chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association—and of counsel at Duane Morris, a firm with more than 700 attorneys worldwide.

“Every metro bar is dealing with the issue of membership and finances,” she says. “I think there has to be a real reason for associates to join the bar. [Bars] have to figure out how to deal with the relevant revenue issues.”

Duane Morris, like some large firms, she says, gives associates a choice of two bar associations to join at the firm’s expense. No longer is it “100 percent membership” in the local/metro bar, she adds, which means bars have had to make some changes in how they work with large firms.

At BAMSL, the 100 Percent Club has actually added members over the last few years, Linza says, but not without making some adjustments. The bar has attracted more judges and corporate attorneys as members, she says, which in turn has helped bring in more large-firm members who welcome the additional networking avenues.

That approach has also been used successfully by the San Diego County (Calif.) Bar Association, according to Karen Korr, the bar’s communications director. “A lot of the judge/attorney interaction is coming from the bar,” she says.

Creating more public relations opportunities for larger firms both inside and outside the legal community has also become a benefit for larger firms in St. Louis. “They like marketing and exposure, so they do like to pay to sponsor for things like speaking opportunities and journal writing [for the bar],” Linza says. “If they can perform some community service and show that they’re giving back, the bar association can play a role in setting up and promoting these events.”

A recent example, she says, is the annual “Motion for Kids” holiday party hosted in December by BAMSL and the St. Louis Bar Foundation, in conjunction with the St. Louis Rams football team. Large St. Louis law firms received prominent public mention to go along with their contributions to the event, which benefited more than 3,000 children of prisoners and soldiers, as well as foster children.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association regularly spotlights large firms and their associates who do pro bono work throughout the state each year, according to Karlina O’Donnell, the PBA’s membership and marketing manager. “It’s self-promotion, but it gets the word out about what these attorneys are doing in the community,” she says.

Simple but important: keeping in touch

Two other approaches, which often go hand-in-hand, are also key to improving and maintaining large firm/bar association relations, according to MBC President and Birmingham (Ala.) Bar Association Executive Director Bo Landrum: communication and appreciation.

About three years ago, the Birmingham bar launched an annual breakfast meeting with the leaders of the city’s largest firms. It’s not a direct membership pitch, Landrum says; rather, it focuses on how the firms can work with the bar to improve the image of both in the community. It’s an important issue for a city that has seen some of its larger firms merge with firms that have headquarters in other cities.

“We let them know that they’re appreciated, and I think they appreciate the feedback. Will it change their policy of writing a couple checks [to the bar]? I don’t know, but it can’t hurt,” Landrum says. “It’s really about communicating value to the large firms.”

Over the last few years, he adds, bar leadership has increasingly reached out to large firms to find some of their associates who would make good selections to serve on the bar’s various committees. The bar’s president-elect communicates directly with the firms to alert them to the committee selection process and to seek their input.

Annual feedback and appreciation meetings with partners at large firms are also staples at the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association, says Liz Novak, the bar’s membership and communications manager. Those meetings usually include discussions of marketing and other opportunities for large firms to participate in bar events throughout the year.

At the Pennsylvania bar, a Large Law Firm Committee has just been established with the goal of providing more information and services to the firms. An electronic newsletter and other communications and programs are in the works, according to O’Donnell. “We need to do more outreach to them and show them the value in bar membership,” she says.

What about solos?

As metro and other bar associations work to find new ideas in partnering with large firms and keeping their support, many continue to find that established approaches and ideas also remain effective.

“There is always a lot of discussion about the traditional offerings of bar associations—CLE, training, publishing—but the intangible benefit is the networking,” Landrum says. “It’s hard to quantify, but people still value face-to-face contact.”

Zeughauser agrees, adding that carefully focused CLE-type learning opportunities—that also incorporate networking—will remain of value to many large firms, many of which remain focused on billable-hour productivity rather than education and networking.

“I think that is a challenge for [bar associations],” Zeughauser says. “They need ideas to stay relevant.”

And it is a challenge that also comes as many associations continue their outreach and services to two other groups critical to the bars’ future success and survival: solo/small-firm practitioners and young lawyers. Furlong says how metro bars grapple with those concurrent issues will help determine their futures. “It’s simply impossible to be all things to all people,” he believes.

And ironically, Linza says, keeping dollars and members flowing in from large firms is key to successful programming for solos/small-firm practitioners and young lawyers, since it’s their large-scale contributions that help pay for such programs.

“It’s a huge balancing act,” she says. “Bars have to be very nimble at changing. We have to match the changes and the generational issues.”

Adds Novak, “We can’t please everybody—but we certainly try.”