Vol. 42, No. 1

What comes after the future report? How some bars are continuing to move forward

by Robert J. Derocher

As co-chair of a joint state bar/judicial task force exploring the future of the legal profession in Missouri, Bill Bay was determined to communicate at least one message pretty clearly to bar members last September when the task force’s report came out.

“This is not another report to go up on the shelf,” Bay says. “This was a very concerted effort by the [state] Supreme Court and The Missouri Bar. I told people, ‘If we’ve done nothing a year from now, it will be very disappointing.’”

A year later, there is no such disappointment: One recommendation from the task force’s comprehensive report is already in place, while meetings and information gathering are well underway for several other of the report’s findings.

“We have to keep telling people, ‘Here’s this report, and there are important things in there you should be looking at,’” Bay says.

That informational approach, along with several other strategies, have been key for Missouri and other bars that want to keep momentum moving after forming special task forces and/or committees that developed goal-laden future-of-the-profession reports and recommendations. By using everything from simple checklists to social media, several bar leaders say they are finding success in making sure that their forward-seeking missions are continuing to, well, move forward.

Integrating the report into the strategic plan

The familiar words of outspoken bar futurist Fred Ury have been in the back of Janet Welch’s head since last summer, when the State Bar of Michigan released a report from its 21st Century Practice Task Force. As the bar’s executive director, Welch has played a key role in helping implement many of the task force recommendations—and not, in Ury’s words, letting the report “gather dust on a shelf.”

After a decade as executive director of the 45,000-member bar, Welch says she had no preconceived notions of where the report would lead. What she discovered is that in the last year, the number of members volunteering on various bar committees and other efforts has tripled. One of the largest sources of volunteers, she says: the 200-plus bar members participating in task force committees, subcommittees and working groups. Many of them, she adds, were younger members.

“The key was getting members just to talk about the future. The task force encouraged that much better than I anticipated,” Welch says. “A lot of members got involved in the task force; now, they’re feeling very empowered.”

A year later, several of the ideas and initiatives laid out in the task force report are in various stages of implementation and discussion. For example, Welch says, a recommendation to clarify and alter rules to allow limited scope representation is now under consideration by the Michigan Supreme Court. The bar also has several working groups exploring ideas to help provide better public access to legal services for people of moderate means.

In addition, the report’s call for the establishment of a Justice Innovation Center in Michigan prompted the bar to instead link that effort with the newly created ABA Center for Innovation, with the belief that it would be more efficient to collaboratively push for integration of innovation efforts, data, and research with other associations.

From an administrative angle, Welch says, one of the keys to ensuring continued relevance of the task force report is the integration of the report into the bar’s overall strategic plan, which is guided by the bar’s 32-member Board of Commissioners.

“The strategic plan itself calls for an annual review and assessment of progress, and whether or not the goals need to be adjusted,” she says.

In Missouri, Bay expects that the task force and report will continue the momentum toward establishing a permanent strategic planning committee that would better set the bar’s future course.

‘Continuity is huge’

To former Utah State Bar president and Futures Commission co-chair Nate Alder, it has been a few seemingly simple concepts that are contributing to keeping the commission’s 2015 report on track. One such concept? A checklist.

“At our last [executive] committee meeting, [past president] Rob Rice gave a report and went down the list and showed that we were on track with every single recommendation that came out of the task force report,” Alder says. “Rob is the keeper of the checklist.”

And that checklist, while creating accountability, Alder says, shows success. Among the items checked off:

  • Creation of a robust online lawyer referral service that is easily accessible to the public.
  • An expanded third-year practice rule to allow more legal services to be provided by law students, which has been approved by the state courts.
  • Establishment of a committee to implement the use of legal limited license legal technicians in the state.

Another concept, he says: leadership commitment and continuity.

“Continuity is huge,” Alder believes. “Our past president, our current president and our president-elect are all Futures Commission people.

“We’re all on board for this. I’m an evangelist for futures commissions.”

At the Boston Bar Association, which created a task force that issued a report on the future of the profession in 2011, regular discussion and dialogue between members, staff and committee—with an eye toward adaptability—have been important in continuing its work, according to Sara Mackey, the bar’s director of professional development.

An example, she says, was a task force recommendation that the bar establish an incubator program for new attorneys. After much discussion, it was decided that elements of an incubator, combined with other needs, would be useful to members at any career stage. As a result, the bar now offers programs such as practical skills and fundamentals aimed at newer attorneys, and primers on how to use technology and computing. The bar has also offered temporary meeting/office space for lawyers and introduced an expanded benefits package, including perks such as translation services, call answering, and software.

Communicating with members

Still, at the heart of the continuity effort for these bars, there is member communication. Website updates, e-mails, newsletters, meetings—all have been part of the arsenal in keeping members informed and making them aware of what the future might hold, and how they can play a role. It starts, many bar leaders say, with the makeup of any task force looking ahead: Involving multiple members across multiple generations, interests and areas of the law is key. That, in turn, needs to be followed by communication.

“We have a large volunteer force. We have smart people at our disposal all the time,” Mackey says. “If we’re wondering what the read is, it’s a phone call or email away. 

“Sometimes, it leads to a pilot program. We’re still working off the [2011] recommendations, and using member feedback.”

Welch says a large contributor to the surge in volunteerism since her bar’s report was issued was a dedicated emphasis on enhancing communication efforts to all bar members, making them “aware of at least some part of the report.”

Adds Alder, “We’ve gotten positive feedback. We’ve done our best to get the information out to our members. People know we’ve done the work.”

The ultimate hope, Mackey says, is that bar members take a greater role in helping shape their own futures and that of the profession—and that they realize this is a regular necessity.

“Change is going to continue to happen, and sometimes it impacts one area of the law more than the other,” she says. “But we’re in an era where there are a lot of things for a lawyer to consider.”