Voluntary Bar Associations and Adapting to a Changing World

August 19, 2019

By Steve Grumm

Bob Glaves is my friend and mentor. So, while skeptical, I grant him the benefit of the doubt when he tells me that the Bobservations readership numbers millions, spanning continents. “Huge and fabulous and, many people are saying, the best ever,” Bob observes of Bobservations.

In any event Bob’s taking a well-deserved break. He’s asked me to contribute a post. Presently, I believe Bob is traipsing about the Wisconsin woodlands. I hope he’s relaxed of mind and surely not reliving the double-doink, ad nauseam.

(Yes, I’m from Philadelphia and poorly mannered.)

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This entry is about how longstanding, successful organizations can, by not adapting to change, risk flirting with irrelevance. I’ll focus on voluntary bar associations—be they local, state or specialty bars. But first I’ll turn the lens to Kodak film’s big…wait for it…negative.

The Eastman Kodak Company, in the course of becoming a 20th-century revenue juggernaut, caused cultural revolution. By selling affordable cameras and developing our film, Kodak made photography available to the masses and forever altered how we see and remember our worlds. If I say “Kodak moment” in earshot of my Mom, she produces dozens of timeworn envelopes, from each of which blossom old pictures of babies, weddings, smiling people with questionable wardrobes, or my acne.

A popular misconception is that Kodak simply missed the digital wave. Au contraire! This Spectacular Failures podcast episode, “Kodak misses its moment,” demonstrates that Kodak was in fact a digital innovator. But, to truncate a fascinating story, Kodak could not adapt its operations to capitalize on the evolving industry landscape, or to a marketplace that soured on its main products.

Kodak saw what was happening, but it could not change in time to survive, let alone thrive.

In 1981 Kodak had $10 billion in sales. In 2012 Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

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Let’s return to voluntary bars—the keepers of our profession’s moral and cultural flames. I am personally invested. My career began in a pro bono clearinghouse, originally launched by the Philly Bar. I served on the board and then as president of Washington D.C.’s voluntary public interest bar. I worked on staff at the ABA. And I served as executive director of a small county bar association.

Bar associations should remain vital in shaping law practice’s future. Bar foundations, for that matter, should play a key complementary role, ensuring that we keep our moral obligation to be of service to our justice system and the society it protects. Associations and foundations should empower us as:

  • excellent practitioners, who can thrive a in legal marketplace that is transforming underfoot; and
  • informed, caring community members who put our skills and dollars behind our statements of principle about equal justice.

Here, I got some worry. We’re a risk-averse bunch, and we’re running headlong into age-demography and large-scale industry changes. These will get ahead of bar associations if we don’t adapt and make ourselves indispensable in this evolving professional landscape. My worry isn’t the change, itself. My worry is the speed with which we’re adapting.

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Below I outline two major challenges, along with ideas to adapt and evolve our voluntary bars in response. Intentionally I draw on resources developed outside the legal industry—I think it broadens our thinking—but also offer ideas from within.

Challenges & Opportunities

Challenge One: Maintaining the Membership Base

Bars are baby boomer heavy, and millennial light. At the local bar I directed, our 2017 count showed about 40% of membership was older than 60. Our median age was 55. And how about this: in 2012 the Washington State Bar “found that 71 percent of bar members were over age 50….”

Boomers will retire en masse, even if recession fallout delays the inevitable. Boomers have been the bar backbone for decades, growing programs, shaping culture, and carrying the leadership mantle. Their looming departure augurs enormous losses in both financial and intellectual capital.

Millennial generation (and the following Generation Z) attorneys can refill the ranks, as a straight demographic matter. But bars struggle to engage and retain junior members. At the bar I ran, we were 40% “60 and over” and only 15% “35 and under.” The Texas State Bar’s “35 and under” cohort is less than 19%.

Ideas & Opportunities

First, don’t chant the “Younger lawyers just aren’t joiners,” dirge. Reject it.

Millennials are joiners, but they are not joiners of associations that have been (quite understandably) molded by and for boomers (and some Xers) for decades. Bars must reconnect millennials—who came of age with outsized educational debt, in the recession—with a sense of agency. We must empower them with skills-building, relationship-development, and leadership opportunities.

Note, too, that whereas many boomers (and Xers like me) are comfortable paying dues and then finding our own value, millennials prefer being shown concrete value, up front.

Member value propositions must be:
Clear, Concrete, and Career-applicable.

Outside the profession, research shows that junior professionals want the “belonging” that associations provide and those professionals who are association members value their membership. But we must get to know millennial values and perspectives (see first article) without falling back on stock solutions like “more social media.” A specific division for younger lawyers (like The Chicago Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section) can be a good place to start.

Some reads and thoughts:

Second, “retired” don’t mean “gone.”

Almost all bars have “retired” and “emeritus” member categories, but it doesn’t hurt to revisit how we keep senior members engaged and ideally dues-paying. This list of the typical retiree engagement programs gives a good overview. (I note that retirees from the higher education arena appear particularly active and engaged.)

I wonder if the best approach to the “retaining retired members” question is to look at what boomers are telling us about finding fulfilling post-retirement pursuits. There are innumerable articles on “second acts,” for example, and valuable insights to draw about what attracts and helps boomers in immediate post-retirement years.

More conventionally, inside our industry:

Challenge Two: Revenue. How Do We Solidify Bar Revenue?

This challenge stems from the first. If we lose members, we lose dues. If we lose dues, we can’t function. The challenge is, jointly, a “what” and a “how”:

  • What our revenue pie charts—which now include gigantic pieces called “member dues”—will look like.
  • How we’ll take in revenue. I mean this in a granular sense, e.g. dues models, and the ways we allow members to pay dues.

Ideas & Opportunities

As for the what, how do we change the revenue pie chart so that the member dues piece doesn’t have to be so large? This overview of the “non-dues revenue” concept, the target markets (although it misses the general public), and some examples is helpful. As for other resources, the lists you’ll find online won’t differ much, content-wise. But some are quite specific on, for instance, what online software platforms can help in revenue-generating. It’s most important to determine how the broad “non-dues revenue” sources apply in our field.

As for the how, dues structures is its own separate blog topic. Suffice to say, bars have been fairly rigid. We favor the “flat fee gets you the whole benefits package” model. The only variability is that dues go up as we become more senior, and we may distinguish between private practice and government/public service attorneys. But many bars, notably the ABA, are revisiting.

In the larger association world the other predominant model besides the “flat fee/all benefits” model may be called “value-based.” In a value-based model, different tier-levels or bundles of benefits may be offered for different dues rates.

Some reads and thoughts:

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Short version of this blog post, and with due respect to the Eastman legacy: let’s not Kodak ourselves by observing the change while failing to adapt.

In closing, Bobservations are music-infused. A Steve-servation will not differ. Keeping with the adaptation theme, it’s extraordinary how one thing may evolve into another if the change agent exercises some creative adaptation. So this

becomes THIS.

If you’re still awake, thanks for reading!


Steve Grumm is a Philly native and access to justice enthusiast with a 20-year career in civil legal aid, pro bono, and access to justice work, including both law practice and nonprofit management roles with national and local organizations.