Vol. 41, No. 5

It’s a different time for bar associations … What’s your membership strategy?

by Marilyn Cavicchia

With the legal profession changing—and shrinking—a bar association’s best membership strategy may not be to think mostly in terms of numbers and how to grab all the lawyer nonmembers in your area.

That’s according to the following panelists at the 2017 ABA Bar Leadership Institute: Elizabeth M. Derrrico, associate executive director at the New York State Bar Association; Ellen Miller-Sharp, executive director and chief executive officer at the San Diego County Bar Association; and C. Allen Nichols, executive director of the Akron Bar Association and Foundation.

Don’t skip strategy

It’s important, Miller-Sharp said, to start with a strategic plan that’s specific to your membership efforts and that spells out exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s all too easy, she added, to skip that part and jump right to tactics. A lot of bar leaders enjoy and feel safer with the idea of “rolling up their sleeves” and being problem solvers than they do with making a careful plan and sacrificing some goals in order to focus on others, she said.

When Nichols started at the Akron bar, he recalled, there was neither a strategic plan nor a staff person specific to membership. Now, he said, the board looks at membership in general, and a newly established membership committee, working with the recently hired membership director, focuses on the tactics that will be used.

For the San Diego County bar, taking into account its current membership number (almost 10,000), the number of other bar associations in its area (more than 40), and the nature of the profession, an objective other than growth soon began to emerge.

“If the goal is numbers, I’m not sure that’s a good place to be,” Miller-Sharp said, speaking of her own association and the organized bar in general.

Instead, she continued, her bar’s primary goal is now to be relevant in the lives of its members, with the subgoal that members will be happy and successful—or “bright and shiny”—as a result of what the bar does for them.

In reevaluating your bar’s current membership goals, Miller-Sharp recommended asking the following questions:

  1. Is that end game sustainable?
  2. Is it serving you well?
  3. Have you had it for the past 10 years? (If so, it may be time to rethink.)

New member campaigns can have unexpected cost

For voluntary bars, a natural impulse—and a common request by elected leaders—is to systematically reach out to all the lawyers in the area who are not bar members, and perhaps give them discounts and other incentives.

“It’s very hard to realize that there are lawyers in your area who will never want to join your bar association,” Derrico said, noting that while your most engaged members often believe that nonmembers would join “if they only knew” what the bar had to offer, not being a member can be a point of pride for some people, and a continuation of a lifelong pattern of not joining things.

Contacting all your nonmembers takes money and time, Allen said; any board member who recommends that the bar engage in such a campaign needs to understand that it can’t be added on top of everything the bar is already doing for its current members, and that it may not be worth dropping something else in order to do this.

Beware the hidden cost of offering goodies to new members, the panelists said. Those offers of 18 months’ free membership, a waiver of section dues and the like can really “tee off” your existing members, Derrico said, particularly if they’ve been members for years and at great personal expense.

Allen once saw a much smaller incentive backfire, when his bar gave to new members a free copy of the previous year’s printed bar directory. A longtime member resigned her membership, he said, because she had wanted a directory for years but couldn’t afford it.

It isn’t that the membership numbers aren’t important, Allen said, “but the end game is to help members be successful.” If the bar focuses on that and does it really well, he added, then those satisfied members will be the bar’s best advocates, with no new member campaign required.

“Engagement helps drive numbers,” he believes.

Miller-Sharp added one caution, which is not to focus so much on a member’s ability to advocate for you that you start to think of your current members primarily in terms of how many others they can bring in for you.

“Treat members as people,” she advised, “not transactions.”

Which members take priority?

Even if your bar decides to focus more on retaining current members than on bringing in new ones, there may still be another hard decision to make: Should some members take priority, and if so, which ones?

Within the past few years, Derrico said, NYSBA made a strategic decision to put its resources primarily toward assisting members who are solo or small-firm practitioners, connecting with the many members who reside out of state, and helping young lawyers find a pathway toward their future. Speaking frankly of her baby boomer peers, Derrico said, “I am not the future of my bar association”—meaning that while a member her age or older won’t be ignored, he or she is also not the main focus as the bar moves forward.

Once you’ve identified a few different membership segments, Derrico said, consider how best to communicate with them about the value of bar membership and how to make the most of it.

“We can’t assume that our members who are inundated with information are necessarily making the connection” between what they need and what the bar has for them, she explained. For solos and small-firm practitioners, she added, this means pointing out how membership in NYSBA can help them not miss a case or fail to make an important deadline.

As for NYSBA’s emphasis on helping new lawyers find a successful path, this starts by going into law schools in a more intensive, purposeful way than the bar had done before, Derrico said. A NYSBA staff person now spends 80 percent of their time on the road, visiting law schools throughout the state. The bar sets up opportunities for “coffee talk” and other chances for law students to meet with practicing lawyers, and it also gives out “break boxes” at lunchtime during exam week.

The goal, Derrico said, is to focus not just on helping the law student find their first job, but to establish a “personal relationship” between the law student and the bar—one that will continue throughout the student’s eventual law career.

The San Diego County bar, meanwhile, has found that other bars in its area aren’t paying much attention to older lawyers, so this is a real opportunity, Miller-Sharp said; the bar makes sure to provide services that are relevant to lawyers who are mid-career and older as well as for new lawyers.

Once you’ve made inroads with a segmented, personalized approach, Derrico said, don’t ruin it with messaging that isn’t similarly targeted to certain members’ specific interests. “The blast email is the enemy of getting your message out,” she believes.

A targeted message, one that acknowledges what a member has attended or shown interest in, can be very powerful, Miller-Sharp agreed: It can help make your members feel “that they are seen.”

The SCDBA has even developed between 50 and 100 “micro-profiles” of members, taking into account their specific interests and needs.

You might find that 70 to 80 percent of members seem to join mainly to put the bar’s name on their CV, Miller-Sharp said; but that’s fine. “It frees up time to focus on the other 20 to 30 percent,” she explained.

Focus on members’ experience

Given its goal that members be successful and happy, Miller-Sharp said, her bar had to do some major rethinking when it turned out that some systems it had in place were too “officious” and resulted in staff members “saying no too often.”

The bar did a full reorientation with staff—and leaders—to shift the emphasis toward saying yes and providing a great experience. The SCDBA even did media training with its staff, Miller-Sharp said—not in case of an actual media encounter, but as a way to set up very realistic scenarios and work out how to respond in a member-friendly way.

For example, Miller-Sharp said, maybe a member shows up for a luncheon but isn’t sure whether they’ve already paid to attend. Should the staff person at the door take several minutes to sort this out, while the member stands there? The bar decided that a much better approach is for the staff person to tell the member to come on in and have a seat, and that the registration and payment details can be sorted out later.

Allen, too, is working with staff at the Akron bar to sharpen service skills and put the focus on members. After all, he said, “It’s their organization—not ours.”