Vol. 39, No.5

What makes an effective bar president? Past presidents, current executive directors share advice

One key message from a panel discussion at the 2015 ABA Bar Leadership Institute on how to be an effective president is that there’s more than one way to do that job well, and more than one role to play.

Mary-Margaret Zindren, executive director of the Hennepin County (Minn.) Bar Association, emphasized the importance of thinking not just in terms of one year and how to make an immediate, personal impact, but of knowing where things stand in regard to the staff and volunteers, and looking several years down the road.

“The role of stewardship is the one that’s least about you,” she noted.

But, said G. Michael Fenner, immediate past president of the Nebraska State Bar Association, “‘Stewardship’ doesn’t really fit with what we had to do.” When he took office, he explained, the executive director was also new to the bar—and then, less than a month into his presidency, “our money was taken away.”

Fenner was referring to the December 2013 state Supreme Court decision that created a “hybrid” situation in which lawyers must join the bar and pay the state a regulatory fee but are not required to pay bar dues.

A crisis of this type meant Fenner had to play a much different role as he and Executive Director Elizabeth Neeley worked closely together to respond to the immediate situation and build a marketing plan to retain dues-paying members who perhaps didn’t realize all the value that the bar gave them.

Rounding out the panel were Marcella O. McLaughlin, past president of the San Diego County (Calif.) Bar Association, and George C. Brown, executive director of the State Bar of Wisconsin and president of the National Association of Bar Executives.

Together with moderator Marc Smiley, principal at Portland, Ore.-based Solid Ground Consulting, the group gave a comprehensive picture of effective leadership, including some of the qualities that remain constant, no matter how bar associations, leaders, and situations may differ.

It all comes down to being “intentional” regarding the culture of the bar and what it needs from its president, Smiley said. “Some of the best leaders are change agents,” he noted, ”and some of the worst try to be.”

The president’s role in marketing

In the aftermath of the court decision, Fenner often found himself in exchanges with members who either said that they wouldn’t be paying dues anymore, or wanted to know what the bar had done for them lately. He was able to regain some of those dues-paying members, he said, by being willing to engage with them—sometimes through multiple rounds of emails—and able to express clearly just what they received for their dues. 

Also worth considering, he said, is the “ripple effect” created when one formerly disgruntled member reports the positive interaction to other lawyers at his or her firm. “Every time you send an email,” Fenner believes, “you’re marketing.”

Smiley agreed that it’s important for the president to act as an ambassador for the bar and noted that too often, the emphasis in marketing is on what an association does, and not enough on what difference it makes.

It’s important to ask, “‘Who are we as a bar?’” McLaughlin advised, adding, “You have to know who you are before you go out and tell what you do.”

The role as the face of the bar is, in some sense, permanent, Brown said, noting that a lawyer who led the Wisconsin bar a decade ago is still referred to by the media as “former president of the state bar.”

Member service and marketing are important whatever your bar’s status, Brown said. Without them, he added, “If you’re a voluntary bar, your members leave; if you’re a mandatory bar, they sue.”

In today’s environment, where more and more unified bars are having that status challenged, every bar needs to act as if it’s voluntary, Brown and Fenner agreed, and never take members for granted.

This can also help, the panelists said, if the bar needs to make a change that isn’t universally popular. For example, McLaughlin recalled, it was when she was president that the SDCBA moved out of its longtime home—a historic former Elks lodge with a high-ceilinged ballroom and other beloved features—into a new building.

It was important, she said, that she assuage some members’ discontent by getting out and “selling” the new location, which she said is much closer to the courthouse and has free Wi-Fi and workspace for members.

Do you have a vision? Should you?

When Zindren started at the HCBA, a lot of people asked what her vision was. But it’s not appropriate for the executive director to have such a thing, she believes—and it’s not even appropriate for the president, she added.

Ideas of where the bar is or should be headed need to come up from membership rather than down from the president or executive director, she said.

Similarly, she cautioned, beware of presidential initiatives and signature programs. “So few stay on the books beyond a couple of years,” she explained.

Bar associations often experience something that Brown called “policy whiplash,” in which each change in leadership brings with it a lot of changes in policy rather than an awareness that each new president and new board is part of a continuum that includes those before and after.

It’s difficult to make lasting, meaningful change in one year, Smiley agreed, noting that a more measured approach would help bar associations fend off “shiny object syndrome,” in which the organization chases one new idea after another.

A better way to channel that desire for initiatives and special projects, Zindren added, is to instead think in terms of themes and focuses, which are then expressed in president’s pages and elsewhere without diverting the bar’s resources toward a one-off program. For example, she said, the current HCBA president’s theme is “bridges and gateways,” and the immediate past president focused on community.

Even Fenner, who had to play a less continuous and much more decisive role because of the crisis that came up during his term, said he loved the idea of presidential themes rather than initiatives—in fact, he suggested that if audience members took away one piece of advice from the program, this should be it.

Is there such a thing as being too measured and continuous? Given the pace of change these days, Zindren said the traditional five-year strategic plan might now be too long. By year four or five, she believes, “Odds are, the world has moved beyond you,” and you look up and realize that the bar is no longer relevant.

Better, she said, is to do a thorough environmental scan every year or two.

‘Be gentle with each other’

Even if it’s not a change in the bar’s status, a move, or some other big event, Zindren said, inevitably, something will happen that disrupts the flow of the year. For example, she said, either the executive director, the president, or both might experience a death, birth, marriage, illness, or another life event.

At all times, she said, and especially during such extenuating circumstances, “being gentle with each other” is a necessity, as is the realization that the executive director and president are in an important relationship.

Not that there can never be conflict or push-and-pull, the panelists said; in fact, Smiley believes that a great executive director is sometimes a “positive irritant” for the president rather than a pushover. McLaughlin said she warned SDCBA Executive Director Ellen Miller Sharp, “‘There’s going to be one thing I will make you do that you’re really going to hate.’”

But the baseline relationship, the panelists agreed, should be one of mutual courtesy and respect. One way to start building that partnership, Zindren said, is to talk about communication preferences: phone, email, days, times, etc. “Tell me what your workday is like,” she advised, “so I don’t call you when you’re on your way out.”

Brown said his message to presidents is to let him know when they’d like to come to bar headquarters. He’ll then consolidate enough tasks that the president can spend a whole day there, get a lot done—and then not have to come back for a couple of weeks.

By working with the executive director in this way, Zindren said, the president can make sure to fulfill one of his or her simplest, but most important duties.

“Presidents that show up are invaluable,” she said, to spontaneous applause. “Honestly.”