Vol. 43, No. 2

Knocking on all the doors and rethinking everything: New approaches to bar membership

by Robert J. Derocher

Thanks to a new deal struck by the Indiana State Bar Association and the state’s four law schools, the bar has suddenly picked up about 1,200 students as new bar members.

Now all the bar has to do is to hang onto them.

“This is a big boost for us,” says Carissa Long, the ISBA’s membership director. “We’ll have three years to prove our value and create relationships with them. Retention is going to be key for us, since we’ll have every new lawyer in the state of Indiana in our ranks [membership is also free for first-year lawyers].  We just have to figure out how to keep them. Retention is going to be our top priority.”

Pilot programs, operational restructuring, analytical approaches, evolving mission evaluations: They’re all in the membership mix, as state and local voluntary bar associations tackle the persistent challenge of declining and stagnant membership. Increasingly, associations are shaking up long-established views of membership recruitment and retention—and how membership connects to a bar’s overall mission. 

More than ever, once-unassailable issues such as CLE programming, dues structure and governing philosophy are being discussed and debated as part of the approach to stem membership losses. The discussion is needed, many bar leaders, executives and experts say, if bars are going to make changes that are essential to remaining relevant among lawyers, and in their communities.

Is your membership declining? You’re not alone

A job-crushing economic recession, a 30-percent plunge in law school enrollment, and challenges reaching a new generation of lawyers have all contributed to steadily declining membership at many bars. Other professional associations have also felt the membership pinch, with slightly more than half of associations reporting falling or steady membership in 2018, according to a survey report from Marketing General, Inc.

“You have to face up to the fact that you’re going to be losing members, so you have to plan for that,” says Kevin Ryan, executive director of the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association. “I don’t think we can get many more members than we have right now. You can add some around the edges, but not enough to make a difference.”

MCBA membership declined 3 to 5 percent a year ago, Ryan says, continuing a downward trend. As a result, a bar restructuring that began more than two years ago is likely to continue, he adds, noting that staff has already been reduced to 8 ½ from the 10 ½ when he came to the bar in 2016.

C. Allen Nichols has been forced to contend with similar trends at the Akron (Ohio) Bar Association, where membership fell 5 to 10 percent last year, following years of stable or slightly increasing membership. Bar staff there has been restructured and cut through attrition and layoffs, with staff falling from 13 to 9 in three years, he says.

While the ISBA has seen membership declines, Long says that the hiring last year of new Executive Director Joe Skeel has led to restructuring but not the elimination of any staff. Skeel is the former executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists, which serves a profession wracked by huge job losses over the last decade.

Long, herself, is part of that restructuring at the ISBA: She shifted from communications to the new position of membership director, becoming one of two full-time people devoted completely to membership. “Prior to Jan. 1 [2018],” she says, “no one person was focused just on membership.”

Should everything be members-only?

At the MCBA, an active health and well-being program rolled out recently is unusual because program offerings such as yoga, spinning, nutrition awareness and counseling services are available to the entire legal community, not just bar members. That’s a departure from the traditional model of using members-only programs as an incentive for people to join.

“I don’t think you can limit all of the benefits you provide,” Ryan believes. “Hopefully, we can lure more people into membership.”

The Akron bar is utilizing bequests by deceased bar members to provide up to 10 hours of free CLE hours to all lawyers—not just all members—along with professionalism training.

“We make a membership pitch before each CLE, as well as advertising the CLEs to nonmembers,” Nichols says.

New payment options and dues structures

The San Diego County Bar Association is rolling out a new payment option to members this year that former Executive Director and CEO Ellen Miller-Sharp hopes will give members a different way of evaluating the value of their membership. The $175 annual fee can be paid either all at once, quarterly, or in monthly installments of about $15 per month.

(Note: Shortly before press time, Miller-Sharp transitioned from the SDCBA to the California Lawyers Association, where she is now director of bar collaborations and special projects.)

“Who can turn you down for $15 a month? That’s cheaper than the gym,” she says. “I think it’s really going to help.”

Also, a  program piloted this year among new lawyers in San Diego County, Bar Bucks, is a Groupon-like offering that lets members spend $50 (the average spend by new lawyers on bar activities) for $150 in bar activities such as CLE and other special events.

“Our goal wasn’t to increase revenue,” Miller-Sharp explains. “Our goal was to increase engagement.”

This pilot has proven successful enough to make it a pilot next year for the entire bar, she adds. Miller-Sharp also believes it can provide a template for an alternate dues structure that may lead to a la carte bar pricing—an increasing topic of conversation among bar leaders as a possible answer to the membership drop-off.

At the Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association, where membership has been declining about 1 percent per year over the last decade, longtime Executive Director David Blaner says the bar’s Membership Committee has become reinvigorated with a focus on capturing more government attorneys and in-house counsel as members—considered an elusive target for many bars. Indeed, at the most recent Conference of Metropolitan Bar Associations, there was a great deal of discussion regarding the difficulties that many attendees are having in capturing those two segments.

One big challenge is that many of those lawyers already receive, through their employers, the benefits and services that bar associations often provide. A possible new approach, Blaner says, is an alternative dues structure.

What could turn law students into ‘bar lifers?’

One of the major areas of focus for ACBA, as it is for many bars, is law schools. Despite fewer graduates, law schools still represent a major source of new members—a fact not overlooked by Blaner. He’s spent the last three or four months working to solidify relationships with the county’s two law schools, making sure that the bar will now have a consistently scheduled presence at the schools. Part of that arrangement also involves having the schools’ career planning offices put the association on their lists of job referrals. When 3L students post resumes looking for jobs, Blaner and his staff can use their contacts with bar members to get those resumes into members’ hands for possible job interviews. The bar also meets regularly with 3Ls to provide career counseling and resume-writing assistance.

“If I can help these students and young attorneys get a job, they might feel there’s some obligation to join the bar association and give back,” Blaner says.

The hope at the ISBA is that three years of full bar membership will generate those same feelings and make law students “bar lifers,” Long says. And to further encourage that, the bar’s House of Delegates this year amended association rules to give students voting rights for the first time, as well as opportunities to join bar committees and hold leadership positions.

“If we can facilitate a meaningful connection for them, we feel like they will be invested in the bar association moving forward,” Long explains.

The Akron bar maintains an active law school liaison subcommittee with the University of Akron School of Law, Nichols says, with a recent emphasis on creating more career networking opportunities for students, such as a “speed networking” event that matches students with bar association mentors. The school also has a representative on the bar’s Board of Directors.

Young lawyers take a seat at the big table

The challenges of cultivating and keeping members are prompting many bars to confront long-standing issues of overall bar operating philosophies. The emphasis on law students also illustrates a continuing need for bars to retain them as members as they become young lawyers. Studies and bar experiences continue to show that those members are the most likely to drop association membership as they transfer from one stage to the next.

“The retention process starts as soon as someone becomes a member, and there is a greater emphasis on on-boarding new members and finding places of engagement for them very quickly,” says consultant and former longtime bar staff member Elizabeth Derrico. “That’s a place where more traditional, less flexible bars are struggling with that just a little bit, trying to figure out how they do it.”

For Ryan, that means a continued focus on tapping younger leaders, with several of the MCBA’s board members under the age of 40, and several lawyers of similar age in key committee leadership positions.

“We want to break that mold that you have to work your way up over a long period of time to be in leadership,” Ryan says.

Derrico and others are skeptical of the popularly held notion that young professionals are, by nature, not “joiners,” thus contributing to the decline in association membership.

“Look at the vitality of the diversity [bars] and the specialty bars. Those organizations are thriving,” Derrico says. “Why? You don’t have to wait around. You don’t walk into the room and [see] your grandfather. There’s a vitality there and an ease of getting things done. 

“You can go to one of those bar associations and be a committee chair and work on something you’re passionate about and not worry about any bureaucratic rigamarole. Young lawyers often feel that the association treats them like they’re at the kids’ table.”

Engagement, not ‘stuff’

CLE is another area where shift seems inevitable, Derrico and others say. Bars such as the New York City Bar Association now include some CLE programming in the dues structure, Derrico says, with other bars taking note. Ryan points to a recent notice he received from an independent provider offering 24 hours of CLE for $70.

“We can’t compete with that. I seriously think that bar associations need to stop thinking of themselves as CLE providers and get rid of that reputation. People need to think of us as something else,” he says.  “Because the bar association has been what it has been for so long, it’s very hard to make it turn to become something other than what it has been.”

But that is just what bars should be looking at doing, says Miller-Sharp, noting the SDCBA’s reputation for being “cutting edge.” It’s incumbent on bar leaders to consistently make changes to adapt to what Derrico says is a membership environment that is “changing more rapidly than we thought.”

Agrees Nichols, “The same old model isn’t working today, and it isn’t going to work tomorrow. You have to be able to get risk-averse attorneys who are on your board to say, ‘Yeah, let’s take this risk.’

“The question is: Do you have the financial resources to last two or three years until you find your new way?”

For the Allegheny County bar, this means an emphasis on “high touch” engagement to retain newer members, Blaner says. The bar regularly invites new members to low-cost social events and programming, including free lunches and CLE. It also means constant program and committee evaluation “so we don’t get stale.”

Blaner adds, “Ten years ago, we didn’t have an LGBT rights committee, we didn’t have a disability rights committee, we didn’t have Hispanic and Asian-focused committees. Now we do. It’s given people newer opportunities.”

At the ISBA, Skeel is also putting an emphasis on analytics to determine membership and association needs and to evaluate what works and what doesn’t, Long says. The bar’s trial agreement with the law schools requires the ISBA to track how it interacts with students in order to receive a group fee from the schools. The tracking will also provide valuable information to the bar on just what services students are seeking.

“We have not been data-driven here, but that is something that we’re absolutely changing,” Long says. “We’re being a lot more strategic in terms of membership.”

The membership and programming shifts, Derrico says, are encouraging—and necessary.

“We need to ask ourselves, Who are we? Are we transactional providers of ‘stuff,’ like CLE, or are we are about peer-to-peer learning, affiliation and leadership?” she believes. “That will lead you to different models. The days of instant membership are over.”