Thomas Wolfe says you can’t go home again; nevertheless, I’m returning to my alma mater Queen’s Law School tomorrow to give a presentation on the future of the legal marketplace. While preparing slides for my section on networking, I noticed that examples of old-line bar associations (the volunteer kind, not mandatory or regulatory bodies like law societies or state bars) were becoming outnumbered by examples of new networks, everything from Facebook, Twitter and Quora to LinkedIn, Legal OnRamp and Solo Practice University. And that got me thinking about the future of lawyer associations.
This is a topic, I must tell you, into which I tread with caution. After all, I spent ten years drawing a paycheque from a bar association, and I continue to speak to and advise legal associations among my current consulting engagements. But I think it’s time to take a hard look at what lawyer associations, some of which trace their origins back to the 19th century, are and aren’t capable of selling to a 21st-century marketplace.
Lawyer associations of all kinds coalesced around a basic truth: there’s strength in numbers. Joining a group of professionals with similar practices, interests and affinities provides a practitioner with the comforts of collegiality, the advantages of an amplified voice, and the possibility of personal gain (referrals, learnings, and so forth).
But maybe more importantly, lawyer associations provide the benefit that every kind of club bestows: self-affirmation. Almost every member of a lawyer organization is proud to be a lawyer and enjoys the elite and rarefied atmosphere of other lawyers who feel the same. Lawyer associations, in this sense, are aspirational: membership is often an endorsement less of the specific association’s virtues or policies or activities, than of the idea that lawyers are special and have special roles in (and responsibilities to) society. Lawyers like that notion, and they like the company of others who share it. That fact has to underlie a lawyer association’s purpose and functions.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of lawyer associations have lost sight of that. Most lawyer groups these days are preoccupied (reasonably enough) with value: are we providing sufficient return on lawyers’ investment of membership fees and volunteer time? It’s the right idea, but I think many associations take it in the wrong direction, by focusing too much on tangible rather than intangible benefits.
Lawyer associations spend a lot of money providing business-improvement resources (checklists, practice pointers, forms and templates), publishing practice management materials (newsletters, magazines, handbooks, etc.), carrying out CLEs (both the in-person and online variety) and obtaining member discounts. These activities are sensible, legitimate and valuable — I’m a former association magazine editor, after all. But the thing is, many other people are offering them too. There’s not much unique about a CLE or a handbook or a discount provided by a lawyer association — it’s rarely a positive differentiator from the rest of the market. Lawyer associations that over-emphasize these services have to answer the question: what do you provide that I can’t also get from the market at large, on an à la carte basis, for less than my annual membership fee?
Many lawyer associations recognize this risk and undertake less tangible activities too, chief among them advocacy on lawyers’ behalf (or, put less delicately, lobbying governments as a special interest). Certainly, no one else will advance lawyers’ claims, given the perception that such interests are not always, shall we say, fully aligned with the greatest public good. But lawyers have as legitimate a claim to advocacy as any other constituency, and lawyer associations can and should uniquely fulfill this role. The problem, though, is that lobbying is not exactly what you call aspirational: necessary as it may be, it’s not a parlour game and it can be an unpleasant experience for all concerned. A lot of lawyers hope for something more from their association than simply aggressive self-interest.
Maybe the answer is public-interest advocacy? Many lawyers are motivated by the belief that laws should be fair and justice should be accessible, so a lawyer organization that publicly urges progress on these fronts will attract aspirational lawyers without repelling the average citizen. That makes a lot of sense and again, is a worthy undertaking for a lawyer association. But there are problems here as well. Public-interest advocacy is a difficult and thankless task that produces relatively few wins against a series of draws or losses; “social justice” issues adopted by an association can be internally divisive and even incendiary; and most pointedly, lawyers do tend to ask, after a while, what benefit they personally get from their association fighting the good fight.
Again — all of these activities have merit, to one degree or another, and lawyer associations legitimately can pursue any of them. The challenge is that, especially in a recessionary period and in the face of unprecedented private-sector competition, they can’t pursue all of them. Associations have to choose strategically — and more importantly, they have to decide what their foundation is. What’s that one thing, that single unique and effective purpose, that associations primarily serve and upon which they are built? It’s not annual meetings, which have dwindled in attendance and importance as physical distances have become less of an obstacle to networking. It’s not improving the image of lawyers, investing thousands of dollars in fruitless efforts to make lawyers more appreciated and valued by a public that is quite happy to stereotype and scapegoat us. So what’s left?
My own suggestion is this: lawyer associations should transform themselves into lawyers’ marketplace evangelists. They should adopt as their mission a sustained campaign to trumpet the unique advantages of choosing lawyers over the many other options spreading throughout the legal services market. Our de facto monopoly on legal services is already disappearing, and our regulatory advantages likely will follow shortly. Lawyers need to differentiate themselves from the people, processes and programs that are coming into the marketplace and drawing clients away; but no lawyer or firm is going to launch an expensive and complex campaign that will benefit competitors as well as colleagues. Lawyer associations can. And they can do so by emphasizing lawyers’ training, professionalism, ethical standards and other outstanding characteristics with which lawyers are proud to be associated.
That’s what associations can do externally. Internally, I think they need to focus on collegiality and collaboration. As society becomes more virtual, face time becomes far more valuable. But lawyer gatherings of all kinds still over-emphasize the role of educational sessions and business meetings — events that lawyers can attend from their desks or on their smartphones — while relegating socializing and networking opportunities to short coffee breaks or abridged cocktail parties at the end of the day. Associations should reverse this: host gatherings to network and socialize first, and to learn or conduct business formally as a sidebar. Look for ways to encourage face time and personal interaction among lawyers — hold un-conferences, sponsor speed-roundtables, form micro-panel discussions for small, specialized groups, and so forth.
Law firms are difficult organizations in which to effect change, and law schools even more so. But the challenge of transforming lawyer associations might be the greatest of all, because institutional memory and habits are powerful and deeply ingrained and decision-making ability is often widely diffused. But the need is real, the challenges are building, and the clock is ticking. One way or another, voluntarily or otherwise, change is coming to the lawyer association sector, too.
Jordan Furlong speaks to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.