Vol. 46, No. 1

Focus on membership: Recruitment, retention, and engagement in the time of COVID-19

By Marilyn Cavicchia

As the COVID-19 pandemic goes on longer than many people expected, profoundly disrupting bars and the legal communities they serve, many bars face an additional challenge: a new dues cycle, and how to convey the value of bar membership—and of sponsorship—even now.

Bar Leader recently spoke with a few bars about how, at a time when many things are difficult, they’re making the decision to join, to renew, to participate, and to support the bar as easy as possible for members and sponsors.

Arkansas Bar Association casts its net wide

In the past, says Karen K. Hutchins, executive director of the Arkansas Bar Association, the bar took a two-step approach to its membership campaigns, first reaching out to current and recent past members and then to all nonmembers at a later date.

But this year was different: The bar reached out to all lawyers in the state, all at the same time.

“We wanted to make sure all the attorneys across the state were aware of our new benefits and incentives,” Hutchins explains. “We also wanted to make sure they were aware we were supportive of the entire legal community, especially as we were facing the pandemic.”

To date, Hutchins says, this new approach—along with a few other strategies—has gained the bar at least 100 new members. Along with the widespread outreach, Hutchins also attributes the increase to awareness of the bar’s existing offerings;  free programming and resources made available during the pandemic; and some new member benefits, including free CLE and access to experts and resources in technology and practice management.

In July 2020, the bar launched its first-ever law practice management assistance member benefit, an online library of resources called Practice Link. Members can also schedule a free, one-on-one 30-minute video or phone consultation with an expert, notes Kristen Frye, the bar's director of education. Also part of Practice Link is Affinity University, a collection of more than 150 in-depth training videos offered in partnership with Affinity Consulting.

The free CLE that was added for the 2020-2021 bar year also relates to law practice management, Frye adds: Members receive six hours of CLE on LPM-related topics at no additional charge.

Added last bar year and proving popular for this one are two new dues payment options: Annual Auto Renewal and Monthly AutoPay (in which annual membership is broken into 12 installments).

"Both options continue each year until cancelled," Frye says, "and the member no longer has to keep up with invoices." The monthly option has also saved staff time during the renewal process, she adds.

About Monthly AutoPay in particular, Hutchins says, “The first year, we had 13 [members sign up], and so far, this year we have over 35. We definitely see it becoming more popular with each new year.”

State Bar of New Mexico issues call to action

Mandatory bars don’t have to actively recruit members the way voluntary bars do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have concerns about whether the lawyers in their state are satisfied with the value of membership and fully engaged with the bar. In its most recent strategic plan, the State Bar of New Mexico has prioritized membership outreach, rural outreach, lawyer well-being, statewide communication, and technology improvements.

In a recent issue of the Bar Bulletin, Executive Director Richard Spinello wrote an impassioned plea to all members, both active and inactive, to help guide the bar and the profession forward.

“Active members of the bar have been adapting to a changing legal practice for many years now and this is only going to accelerate as the after-effects of the global pandemic are realized. While we do not know ‘what we do not know,’ the future of the practice of law in New Mexico is being transformed,” Spinello wrote. “How we respond and what our priorities will be can shape that future for both individual attorneys, the legal profession as a whole and our collective responsibilities. How has the pandemic affected our clients? How do they prioritize their legal needs in a post-pandemic world? How has the increased reliance on technology affected our law office operations and how we practice law? Have our expectations changed on what can and cannot be accomplished remotely? In the cloud? By telecommuting? By our staff? What will be our ‘new normal’?”

Spinello specifically invited inactive members to become more involved by joining sections, committees, and divisions; serving as liaisons to other groups; being appointed to voluntary positions by the bar and the New Mexico Supreme Court; speaking at continuing legal education classes; and seeking permission to participate in the emeritus pro bono program.

Spinello closed by reminding all members of the oath they took “to assist in the betterment of the legal profession and the public” and said that recovering from the pandemic and adapting to a changed profession and world will require “the generosity of your time and the enthusiasm of both our active and inactive members.”

Anne Arundel (Md.) Bar Association teams with other local bars

As important as dues are, most bars also keep a close eye on their nondues revenue—and maintaining good relationships with sponsors can be a challenge when in-person events are canceled for the foreseeable future.

In April 2020—early in the COVID-19 shutdown—the Anne Arundel (Md.) Bar Association began an initiative to partner with its platinum and gold sponsors, Frost Law, Multi-Specialty HealthCare, and Vallit Advisors. In what Executive Director Frances M. Czajka calls “the spirit of collaboration and cooperation,” the AABA also brought into its partnership the five other major local bars in Maryland: the Baltimore County Bar Association, Bar Association of Baltimore City, Howard County Bar Association, Montgomery County Bar Association, and Prince George’s County Bar Association.

Together, the group planned a series of free virtual webinars providing up-to-date pandemic-related information for a variety of legal practice areas; thus far, there have been 25 such webinars, CLE sessions, and meetings attended by more than 1,800 members.

Sponsors themselves moderate and speak during the webinars, Czajka says, and they appreciate the chance to make “a direct connection to a broad number of members” they might not be able to reach as effectively otherwise. Members appreciate hearing from experts outside of the legal profession, such as financial planners, business valuators, accountants, and medical and mental health professionals, Czajka adds. Webinar attendance, streaming of recorded sessions, survey responses, and direct member feedback all indicate a high level of member engagement, she notes.

In addition to teaming up to work with sponsors and engage members, the group of local bars have also pulled together in another way, Czajka says, via a weekly meeting in which their executive directors share "information, resources, and good old-fashioned moral support.”

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