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April 01, 2018

Message from the Chair-Elect: The ABA’s Problems Are Our Problems

Thomas L. Rosenberg

The Forum on Construction Law (“Forum”) is flourishing.  We recently had over 700 people at our Fall 2017 meeting in Boston.  Membership remains steady, our finances are sound and we continue to provide first rate CLE to our members and others who join us at our national programs.  Our Divisions are hot and member interest in the Forum has never been higher.

However, we are part of the American Bar Association (“ABA”).  The ABA is facing challenges.  The ABA is losing members at rates that are not sustainable.  The coming baby boomer retirements as well as statistics that show younger members are not joiners of trade associations like the ABA, will hurt the ABA.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are over 1.2 million lawyers in the United States.  Yet, less than 25% are dues paying members of the ABA.  Only 6% of sole practitioners are members of the ABA, according to data shared with us by the ABA.  Lawyers are questioning the value in belonging to the ABA.

Faced with these challenges, the ABA is addressing the issue head on.  As Forum members, we must join the ABA in seeking ways for it to be more successful.  Its failure will be our failure.  Its success will be our success.  We will continue to be the best place for construction lawyers to meet, interact, obtain their legal education, network and the like, but we have to join the ABA in helping it solve its problems.

The ABA cannot continue doing things as it has in the past.  The ABA is not a commodity that can be driven by price, but rather, it has to demonstrate value to lawyers.  Is there value in being a member of the ABA?  Or alternatively, is the value in being a member of a Section, Division of Forum?  Obviously, we believe that the value lies in being a member of a Section, Division or Forum such as the Forum on Construction Law.

OneABA is the ABA’s approach to addressing its problems.  OneABA seeks to unlock the value of ABA membership to more lawyers and to reduce its cumbersome and complex bureaucracy.  It seeks to make membership more convenient for those in law firms, legal departments, courts, government, military and public service organizations.  It seeks to address the growing challenges that the ABA faces from competitive, demographic, and cultural shifts in our profession and society.  It seeks to create a new membership model that reflects what today’s legal professionals desire. It will accommodate growth and future innovation.

How will it do this?  First, it will eliminate the multitude of dues structures throughout the ABA and create a simplified dues structure with a reduced payment.  At this time, the proposal calls for dues to max out at $350 for lawyers in private practice 20 years or more.  With payment of your dues, you will obtain membership in two Sections, Divisions or Forums at no additional cost and eligible lawyers will be automatically enrolled in the Young Lawyers Divisions or Senior Lawyers Division.  Members will be able to join additional Sections, Divisions or Forums for a nominal fee.  Members will enjoy unlimited access to a free CLE library.  Additional benefits are currently being considered.

What does this mean for us in the Forum on Construction Law?  It means that we have to be better stewards of our finances, look to increase non-dues revenue and maintain and seek to increase our membership.  Reduced dues to join the ABA and free enrollment in two Sections, Divisions or Forums will result in a loss of dues revenue to our Forum.  The approximate amount of lost dues, as well as when the loss of dues revenue will impact us are still being determined.  In all likelihood, we will be fine for a few years.  However, now is the time to look at our resources.  We have to find ways to increase our membership.  We need to focus on better recruitment of young lawyers and prove to young lawyers that there is value in joining the Forum on Construction Law.  We need to capture the successes that many of our young lawyers have had by being members of the Forum and make those success stories available to everyone.  We need to make diverse lawyers aware that a friendly home exists within the Forum on Construction Law.

In addition, we need to maintain our relationships with our sponsors and exhibitors who provide great resources to us financially and otherwise.  We have become dependent upon our sponsors and exhibitors.  That dependence will never go away, but will in all likelihood, increase.  While we have had a successful year in terms of book sales, we cannot depend upon book sales going forward to be a significant source of revenue.  Young people are simply not buying books the way lawyers did in the past.  We are experimenting with a joint online publication with the Associated General Contractors of America in an effort to determine our ability to be profitable in the online publications market.  We need to continue to put on first rate programs so that we can derive revenue to meet our budgets every year.

We are also challenged by our lack of staffing.  The Forums have an inordinately small amount of staff compared to other Sections and Divisions of the ABA and as a result, we lack the staff resources to market, interact with our members and develop programs on top of what we currently provide.  We must re-examine our staffing allocation and seek to increase staff if possible.  Faced with all of these challenges though, the Forum on Construction Law is strong enough to meet them head on and succeed.  I am convinced we can do so.

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Thomas L. Rosenberg

Roetzel & Andress, Columbus, OH, Chair-Elect