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December 11, 2018 Legislative Update

A New Model for ABA Membership: Embracing Change

By Troy S. Weston

You may not have realized it, but when you renewed your ABA dues this year, it’s a safe assumption that you probably did not pay precisely what your peers paid. This hypothesis rings true because the ABA currently offers 157 different membership packages that vary based on how long you have been practicing, how much you earn a year, whether you are in the public or private sector, and the subgroups within the ABA to which you belong. Even the most reluctant skeptic is led to one conclusion: The ABA has embraced the Byzantine, and Byzantine anything has gone the way of American-style venting for men’s suits.

Modernity, however, has caught up to the 140-year-old ABA. Reports of stagnant membership numbers and revenue shortfalls have become ubiquitous in the last several years, and while austerity measures have been implemented, Association leaders acknowledged that structural challenges embedded in the mechanism for ABA membership had to be addressed. In its 2018 report to the ABA House of Delegates, the Standing Committee on Membership (SCOM) found that “[t]he cost of ABA membership is in many ways out of synch with the market and over-complicated.” Report to the House of Delegates, A.B.A. Standing Comm. on Membership, Res. 177, Aug. 2018,

https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/house_of_delegates/2018_am_177%20REV.authcheckdam.pdf.

Streamlined ABA Dues Structure

Fortunately, the ABA recognizes the need for change, and beginning with fiscal year 2020, a new membership model will be waiting for you like an enthusiastic Golden Retriever at the end of an arduous day. Working with Avenue Strategy, the ABA developed a proposal to reduce the number of membership packages from 157 to five. Presently, the highest base rate for membership is $467. Harkening back to SCOM’s comment about the cost being “out of synch with the market,” many of you reading this article have experienced heartburn writing that check every year, or you have been the recipient of grousing from your managing partner or CFO when renewal time arrives. The new proposal has five categories of dues, with $450 as the highest, which will apply only to lawyers who have been practicing for more than 20 years, are currently practicing full-time (i.e., not retired), and are in private practice at firms with more than five lawyers. The other categories still take into account your longevity in the bar and your practice setting, but they range from $75 for attorneys with fewer than five years’ experience up to $450.

Appealing to the Modern Lawyer

Along with the reduced categories of dues are other changes designed to make the ABA attractive to the modern lawyer. An increased amount of free CLE is coming, and it is expected that 650 on-demand CLE hours will soon be available in the ABA’s CLE Marketplace. The new ABA website debuted in October, allowing users to access and purchase content with the efficiency of other successful online marketplaces like Amazon (think one-click for that treatise you have had your eye on). Further, these membership initiatives are going to focus on curating content for members based on their interests and location.

The new membership model comes with risk. For example, an attorney with 10 years’ experience at a law firm with 25 lawyers currently pays base dues of $467. Next year, that same attorney will pay $250 while having access to more membership options. However, based on the projections, if this new membership model works according to plan, after five years, the ABA will have more than 80,000 new dues-paying members.

Change is good. Change is necessary, and change is going to propel our organization into the next 140 years. When you renew your ABA membership next year, remember that the streamlined dues structure has taken it a little easier on your wallet while, at the same time, other ABA changes are going to bring you better, more customized content.

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By Troy S. Weston

Troy S. Weston is an associate with Eldridge & Blakney, P.C., in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is the diversity vice-chair of TIPS’s Medicine and Law Committee, a member of the Section Conference Special Standing Committee, and the Young Lawyers Division’s liaison to TIPS’s Long Range Planning Committee. He may be reached at [email protected].