Vol. 41, No. 2

Advice for new EDs in changing times

by Marilyn Cavicchia

As the cliché goes, nothing is constant except change. Here are some words of wisdom from retiring executive directors for new executive directors, especially in a time of great transformation:

  • It’s important to “know what lawyers need before they know,” and then to “proselytize” for changes that may be uncomfortable but important, says George Brown, executive director of the State Bar of Wisconsin. Find lawyers who are leaders on particular issues, he suggests—members will listen to them more than to anyone on the staff.

  • Patience Burns, who recently retired as executive director of the Palm Beach County Bar Association, echoes Brown’s belief that executives often see transitions ahead before lawyers do. “Our job is to bring that information to the membership and create programming and services that will assist them with those changes,” she says, adding that NABE programs offer a great way to stay “on the cutting edge of what is affecting the legal profession.”

  • Particularly in this era when joining a voluntary bar is no longer a given, “my advice to a new executive director is to continually build personal rapports with managing partners of law firms,” says Cathy Maher, executive director of the Dallas Bar Association.

  • Do “weave social media into the fabric of the bars,” advises Evelyn Albert, executive director of the Lancaster Bar Association, but don’t forget to encourage young lawyers to make face-to-face connections. “Networking is NOT a four-letter word,” she says. “Collegiality of the profession depends on it, and getting jobs depends on it, too.”

  • Recalling his then-risky decision to bring the Alabama State Bar online, Executive Director Keith Norman says, “I learned that sometimes you have to make a decision that might not necessarily be based on rational decision making, but on faith that what you are doing is the right thing to do.”

  • “When people are working together to achieve a productive, meaningful result,” notes Paul Carlin, executive director of the Maryland State Bar Association, “so much satisfaction can be reaped.”

  • “Sometimes it feels like you’re being disloyal to old programs that used to work well,” says Katherine Mazzaferri, executive director of the District of Columbia Bar, “but it can be freeing to imagine what could be.” And that may be essential now, she believes; “I think we’re in a moment where imagining a new framework, whatever it is, is going to be important.”

  • If a member calls with a question, answer it—even if they've been given this information many times before, advises Trisha Graham, executive director of the Tarrant County Bar Association. “When you get that email from a member and you believe that they are upset, don’t respond with another email,” she adds. “Pick up the phone and call them. The personal touch goes a long way.”

  • “As bar execs, we are asked to do many things, and it is always a temptation to think certain things are beneath us or that someone else should/could do it,” says Larry Houchins, executive director of The Mississippi Bar. “We have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish the task before us—be a servant leader.”

  • “Always remember that the association belongs to the members, not the staff,” notes Allan Head, executive director of the North Carolina Bar Association. “Successful executive directors have to listen carefully to what members are saying … and VERY carefully to what they’re not saying.”