Kevin O’Keefe asked an important question this week: Why are bar association leaders missing from the internet? Why aren’t they evangelizing for their causes by blogging? Why are they suspiciously absent from discussions on Twitter and LinkedIn? The online legal community is abuzz with talk of innovation, technology, and the future of our profession—and the people who lead our profession remain silent.
It’s not as if bar associations aren’t having these conversations. As Kevin knows, the ominous “future” is often raised in committee and a frequent bugaboo of reports. The problem is that these conversations never appear online; the buzz of the committee meeting stays in the ears of its members.
Briefly, Kevin highlights how this hurts bar associations:
- They miss the chance to evangelize for their cause.
- They can’t defend themselves from frequent online criticism.
- They ignore an effective way to promote their members and those who are doing good work.
- They fail to build trust or gain access to influencers.
In the end, Kevin can do little more than call these leaders to action. I’d like to add my perspective on the problem, as a lowly bar association employee.
I think bar associations and their leaders do not understand online engagement. It’s not in the job description (though perhaps it should be). Social media is left to communications and marketing professionals employed by the bar, and this seems sensible to people who understand the value of specialization.
The core problem is that bar associations and their leaders do not know how to be authentic online, or the importance of it. They do not know that vulnerability is more important than polish, that truth-telling is better than appeasement. They do know—from experience—that bold innovation is a risky business; in a bar association, anything but the status quo is going to upset somebody. We shouldn’t fear that, but, then again, lawyers are scary. Especially upset lawyers. This makes frank discussion risky, and the internet only makes it riskier. The larger the audience, the louder the boos.
I’m just an entry-level bar association employee (with a J.D., at least), so forgive me if I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I have a hunch that the biggest problem with bar associations in general is that they are afraid of their own members. This fear gets in the way of online engagement and authenticity. It gets in the way of innovation. It stifles.
I’m not sure that fear is justified. I should say it’s a fear of a small but vocal minority of members who might raise a ruckus. Because, really, most attorneys are good people and most bar members are good attorneys (at least in my state). Bar associations know and are proud of this. And yet, still, behind every decision there lurks a fear: How will they react?
Ironically, that question and that fear are exactly why bar association leaders need to be online. There’s no better way to influence people, to make your case, to generate support, and to put a positive spin on your actions. I think bar associations have been habitually uncommunicative, and that needs to change. The cure for members’ skepticism is more communication, not less. Especially because, in the end, our causes are objectively good and our innovations plainly needed.
I’d like to end by emphasizing what Kevin overlooked. It’s not just bar association leaders—lawyers who serve as presidents and committee members and such—who need to be online. Even more so, bar association employees must be present on blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. The truth is that association presidents and committee chairs come and go quite regularly, while employees stick around for 10, 20, or 30 years. These people are the lifeblood of the association—they are the ones who take what members want to do and actually make it happen. They are the ones who have staked their living on the association’s future, and they want to see it succeed as much as anyone in innovating and helping its members. I’m not sure this is well understood.
That’s why bar association employees should be empowered and encouraged to speak online with their own voices. These people are a huge force for change in our profession, and yet they are often silent. This will require a change of culture in bar associations (who tend to be afraid of communicating too much of their internal affairs) and probably a change of mindset for many employees. But if bar associations are going to be authentic, it is absolutely necessary.
I’d like to start with myself. I’d like to start taking this blog seriously, as a part of my job. It’s a way to network. It’s a way to think and develop ideas. It’s a way to stay connected with the people I serve, and show them the value of what I do. Perhaps, someday, it will help me push our profession forward and make it better for everyone. In the meantime, I’m just happy to add my voice to the conversation.
Thanks for the push, Kevin.