Vol. 42, No. 5

How can bar associations do more with less? Through focus and collaboration, Mary Byers says

by Marilyn Cavicchia

There’s no way around the fact that this is a time of diminished resources—in terms of time, money, staff, and members—for many bar associations. The impulse at such a time is to cut and keep cutting, said Mary Byers: “Often, when resources diminish, programs and services diminish.”

While it is important to look critically at everything the bar association does and make a “to don’t list” of some things to let go, Byers said, there is a limit—a point where the association will be not just lean but meager, and will no longer be able to engage its members, who are “attracted to excellence.”

What can an association do if it sheds what it no longer needs but nonetheless finds it difficult to retain the programs and services that are still vital and important? One answer, Byers believes, is to look around and seek partners that may not have been considered before.

“Collaboration is the future for associations,” she said.

At the 2018 ABA Bar Leadership Institute, Byers—a speaker, author, and consultant to associations—shared some of her ideas during a short “TED”-style talk and in a longer plenary. Below are some of her observations.

Back to basics

Much as she believes there’s a point where cuts would go too deep, Byers also thinks that many associations have a long way to go before they reach that point—and that this challenging time offers a good opportunity to quit thinking that “the more we do, the more we matter.”

With limited resources, she said, it’s important to get “back to basics”—which you can’t do until you know exactly what your basics are. Make time to carefully evaluate all the bar’s programs and services, she advised, and make everything (yes, everything) “audition” to be retained. Going forward, Byers added, anytime you add a new program or service, automatically build in a sunset review for two years later, to evaluate whether the new addition is working or not—and if not, whether it can be fixed or should be eliminated.

Also helpful, she said, is to write for each program and service a brief statement of purpose describing what it is, what it costs, how it works, and when it is expected to break even. Not everything the bar does must break even, she added, but it’s important to make sure that enough things either break even or make money in order to carry the things that cost money and that the bar must do anyway.

Sharpening the bar’s focus makes it easier for members to see and understand what it is you offer, Byers said, adding that it’s important to realize that the board—and the rising officers in attendance at BLI—are very different from the average member. Assume that the average member has no idea what it is that the bar really does, Byers said, and make sure you “tell your story” clearly on the website and in other communications.

But what do you do about the fact that the programs and services are provided to average members who almost certainly are not in the room when decisions are made? That’s where research comes in, Byers believes. It can be expensive, she conceded, but “the associations I work with who are doing research are thriving.”

And whatever else you decide to eliminate, Byers advised, “Invest heavily in technology.” Especially now, the right systems and tools provide critically important infrastructure, she explained, and spending there can also help you save in other areas. For example, she said, you might decide to eliminate some face-to-face meetings—and if you do, you might also consider upgrading to videoconferencing so people are less apt to surf online or do other things during the meeting.

Choosing potential collaborators

If there’s something you need to offer to members, but it exceeds your bar’s capacity, Byers said, it’s important to realize that you “don’t have to go it alone.” But don’t go into collaborations lightly, she added—and don’t underestimate “the personality piece.” Can you trust and work well with the other organization and its leaders and staff? Also, she said, make sure that the potential collaboration has benefit for both of the organizations and their members—and that it doesn’t create a lot of extra work for either partner without also creating extra value. Byers highlighted several successful collaborations:

  • The Minnesota State Bar Association, Hennepin County Bar Association (in Minneapolis), and Ramsey County Bar Association (in St. Paul) began “officially, formally” collaborating a few years ago on access to justice and other areas where their strategic visions align. In fact, Byers noted, the MSBA and HCBA are now in the same building and share a receptionist—yielding a savings of $70,000 for the MSBA and $100,000 for the HCBA. The shared space, she added, has sparked informal conversations in the elevator and elsewhere, which probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise and which have led to further collaboration.

  • About 50 years ago, when both bars were in a period of transition, the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations decided to share both office space and staff. Look to an executive director’s retirement or other similarly big change as a natural point to think about a collaboration of this scale, Byers advised.

  • Six affinity bars have their offices in the headquarters of the Boston Bar Association. The BBA hosts many programs and meetings for affinity bars, and the BBA and the affinity bars work together to identify leaders and collaborate on diversity and inclusion efforts.

Think outside of the bar world, too, Byers advised: Could you partner with another type of professional association, with a community organization such as the YMCA, or with your local chamber of commerce? And don’t forget to consider whether there might be ways to collaborate with one or more of your vendors or sponsors, she added.

Consider a 90-day sprint

The traditional bar association governance structure and meeting format is not known for its nimbleness and flexibility, Byers said—together, it often “introduces too much time,” she believes, and causes the association to spin its wheels when it should be moving forward.

Byers is a fan of what she calls the 90-day sprint, in which a team or teams within the association set a goal to explore an issue or idea intensely over a short period. The intention, she clarified, is not necessarily to reach a decision by the end of that time. It may be enough, she said, to know at the end of 90 days whether or not a particular idea (such as a new collaboration) is worth exploring further.

The 90-day deadline “creates a sense of urgency,” which can be helpful in getting board members and others out of lengthy cycles of debate and toward a quicker decision regarding whether to move forward with an idea.

Focus on one idea at a time, Byers recommended—and if the sprint works well, then “pick one more thing,” and keep going. There’s a real risk, she said, in trying to focus a sprint on 42 or even just eight great ideas, which will divide the group’s attention too much.

Byers acknowledged that many associations, and their boards, may not be entirely comfortable with the idea of working so intensely and quickly—but she said that today’s environment demands doing some things differently.

“How uncomfortable are you willing to be,” she asked, “on behalf of the future of bar associations in this country?”

(For additional insights from Mary Byers, and a matrix to help you evaluate bar programs, please see the slides from her short talk and the handout from her plenary program.)