April 03, 2019

The Chair's Corner

Joseph A. DeWoskin


You can’t miss it. Go to a wedding, go to a bar mitzvah, go to any place humans gather where dance music fills the air, and you’ll see it. It’s one of those line dances requiring no partner and no human contact. Watch one partygoer doing the Electric Slide and another dancing to “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” and it’s not impressive. Focus instead on the dynamic of a room filled with line dancers, and, while the effect may be redolent of a mass wedding or a flash mob exercising to “We Are the World,” it’s still a wave of movement filling the room.

Save for the same steps, the predictable but dull beat, the glazed expression on participants’ faces, all moving in rote, there is no connection. The dancers don’t touch one another. They’re linked by nothing. Their steps aren’t dependent on a partner’s movements. It’s a room filled with robots, whose only leader is the one holding the microphone. Synchronized swimming and competitive yoga may have more soul.

The American Bar Association thrives on connectivity. The officers and executive leadership operate on one level, those who create products operate on another plane, and then there are those who are there for the camaraderie and to deliver the vote. But there’s a whole other layer that isn’t connected at all to the power structure—the members who faithfully send in their dues year after year, who couldn’t begin to name two presiding officers within the past decade, much less attach a name to a face, and who could care less whether meetings are held, policy developed, or august pronouncements made from on high. These members are in it for the products, the savings, and the belief that belonging to a professional organization somehow matters. Although it’s easy to assume that the passive members aren’t paying attention, it’s also a dangerous illusion. They may quietly overlook the ABA’s voice in politically charged issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, but they’re also the first to ask “What about me?” when their own needs aren’t being met.

Leadership in the ABA has a lot in common with the DJ calling the tunes on the dance floor. The decisions are made at the top and filter down to the customers, also known as members. Solos and small firm lawyers who are used to doing things their own way are accustomed to leadership percolating and swelling from the ground up. They would rather ask for forgiveness than permission and are able to mobilize quickly and creatively, crafting solutions rather than protocols. Hierarchies, committees, labyrinthine alliances, and Byzantine politics tax their patience; what may be part and parcel of a large organization is anathema to them. And all of that creates a genuine disconnect in leadership styles. What works for large institutions, the military, government, and academia doesn’t always work for solos and small firm lawyers.

Last month, SoloSez celebrated its 15th birthday. An old-fashioned, no-frills mailing list, it came about during a single conversation between a staff person and member of the ABA Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners. No strategic planning sessions, no flip charts, no implementation plans and mission statements, and no consultants were involved in its conception. Frankly, no one knew where it was headed—and no one ever dreamed that it would grow to become the premier online community of solos and small firm lawyers, numbering nearly 3,000. Operating with no chair or executive council or formal leadership, Solosez still has its own networks, connectivity, and lore, its members spontaneously creating groups, organizing gatherings across the country, putting together buying groups, and even policing the errant. Corporate sponsors have recognized Solosez as a powerful advertising vehicle. In its own way, Solosez is a more like Facebook than the ABA, although Facebook does impose a higher threshold by requiring that its users declare themselves to be at least 13 years old.

Solosez participants contribute greatly to the organized bar’s mission and work, acting as the barometer and pulse of the solo and small firm lawyer. ABA and GPSolo leaders may lurk, but they have not participated in Solosez as much as they should, and that’s to their detriment; they could learn a lot about solos and small firm lawyers by engaging in their community and getting to know them. Until that happens, solos and small firm lawyers will be as connected to and identified with the ABA and GPSolo as those folks who are dancing the Electric Slide all by themselves.

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