Vol. 40, No. 5

Making the connection: Bar presidents and member engagement

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Many incoming leaders put a lot of energy into coming up with a way to make a lasting impression during “their year.”

But the real key to a great presidency can be very simple, said Robert E. Craghead, executive director of the Illinois State Bar Association: If you focus on being “an excellent emissary and advocate to and for your members,” you’re well on your way.

Along with all the other roles that the bar president takes on, agreed Eric T. Cooperstein, past president of the Hennepin County Bar Association, make sure to add this one and do it well: “Cheerleader in Chief.”

In a workshop at the 2016 ABA Bar Leadership Institute, Craghead and Cooperstein shared practical tips to help incoming bar presidents connect in ways that help members and others feel engaged, involved … and important.

Show up … a lot

Chances are, you’ll go to the bar’s headquarters quite often, for board meetings and other presidential duties. When you know you’ll be there, Cooperstein advised, check the bar calendar to see what else is going on that day—and make a point of arriving early to “poke your head in” at the CLE or committee or section meeting. Say a quick hello to the CLE speaker and to the attendees, and then go to your meeting.

What message does that send? Most members realize how busy the president is and that he or she has a lot of meetings to attend, Cooperstein said, so even a brief pop-in says to members, “What we’re doing must be pretty important to the bar association.”

And don’t feel like you have to avoid young lawyers’ events, Cooperstein added; while it is true that young lawyers divisions or sections often don’t want anyone and everyone to attend their events, they make an exception for the bar president. Just as with other members, he said, this is a good way to show young/new lawyers that they are important to the bar association.

Consider taking some of these interactions off-site, too, Cooperstein advised; taking affinity bar leaders and/or the chair of the young lawyers’ group out for lunch or coffee can help build a relationship and is a gesture that will be appreciated.

Whenever and wherever you do show up, Craghead advised, be prepared with a quick “elevator speech” regarding the value of bar membership and what the bar is doing on behalf of all its members and even the particular  member or group of members you’re talking to.

The bar president is an esteemed and respected figure, but he or she is also a peer and a colleague to members of the bar, Craghead noted; those two factors combined mean that “You’re the most convincing spokesperson for the association.”

How to work a room … and not hit the floor

It’s a fact of presidential life that everyone at a big event will want to spend time with you—and that alcohol is served at many of those events. How can you make the connections you need to make without getting hung up talking with any one person—or making a spectacle of yourself?

“If you go straight to the bar when you go to that event, you’ll never get out,” Cooperstein said. Instead, he advised, position yourself just past the table where people pick up their nametags. That’s the perfect spot for you to introduce yourself, chat for a minute, and then smoothly transition the person by introducing them to someone else or suggesting that they make sure to get themselves some food.

And once you do get to the bar? If you’re going to drink alcohol, Cooperstein said, limit yourself to one such beverage every hour and a half, with water in between. This does mean that if you’re there for only 45 minutes, you won’t drink anything with alcohol—but that’s a good thing, Cooperstein believes.

“The number of bar leaders I’ve seen drunk at an event is more than I ever need to see again,” he said.

Don’t forget the board

If you connect well with rank-and-file members and with chairs of the various sections and committees, you might think that your job is done, and that board members will naturally feel engaged, simply by virtue of their board service.

Actually, the board is a great place to start building connections, Cooperstein said, and those
one-on-one coffee or lunch dates work well for this, too. He managed to meet individually like this with almost all 28 board members before he became president, Cooperstein added.

Encourage board members to connect with each other in this same way, he suggested. At one board meeting when he was president, each board member was instructed to find the board member who had a card with his or her name and then arrange to have lunch or coffee. In the evaluation at the end of the year, this particular meeting got rave reviews.

Cooperstein recalled wondering why it was necessary for the bar president to help break the ice in this way: Couldn’t board members have connected on their own? There’s something to be said for “the power of invitation,” he explained—board members certainly could have done this, but the fact is, they didn’t until the president specifically invited or encouraged them to. Don’t underestimate this power, he advised—you can also use it to line up CLE speakers or fill in any other holes where no one is volunteering on their own.

‘Nothing’ can really be something

If you’re thinking it sounds like Cooperstein focused more on making connections than on undertaking any special initiatives, you’re right. In fact, he said, referencing Seinfeld, “I did nothing during my bar year. It was a presidency about nothing.”

What’s more, he said, other incoming bar presidents should consider doing “nothing” (in terms of presidential initiatives), too. Just as you reach out to members, board members, section leaders, and affinity bar leaders, he noted, you can also connect with potential new sponsors. If every president of a particular bar secured two new sponsors, that bar would have 10 new sponsors in five years, he stressed—which is a pretty powerful “nothing” to accomplish.

“Don’t do special projects,” he advised. “Do the work of your association.”