Bar associations are missing a big opportunity

Bar associations are missing a big opportunity. Their members have a need: to turn the practice of law into a successful business. Doing so is a real challenge for many solo and small firm attorneys.

So far bar associations have tried to address this need by playing it safe. They’ve added practice advisors, who give members free one-on-one advice and answer questions about running a firm. This is thinking too small. It’s nice to have help deciding on practice management software or what to pay a new associate, but those decisions do not a successful business make.

A successful business is exactly what many new private companies offer lawyers. These companies have figured out what it takes to make a law firm make money. They’ve figured out all the systems and details and wrapped it up in a tidy package. All the lawyer has to do is follow the system, and he’ll be successful. Lots of lawyers are willing to pay lots of money for that.

I know because I used to work in my bar’s book division. When deciding whether to accept my current job and return to practicing law in a small firm, I asked for details about the business—I wanted to make sure it was set up to succeed. What my employer showed me was Lawyers With Purpose, an estate planning business-in-a-box group he pays for. I was skeptical at first, but quickly saw that it provided a well-thought-out business model, complete with detailed systems for everything—processes for marketing, processes for referrals, processes for the legal work, etc. Everything was clearly done by someone who knew how to run a firm as a business, and that reassured me greatly. It just required following the system.

Bar associations need a new source of revenue. Revenue from traditional books is falling; pressure to keep dues low is higher than ever. Members won’t pay $200-300 for books and CLE, yet they will pay many times that each month for a successful business model. Seems like a no-brainer.

Of course, developing this kind of product is hard and risky. This business is all or nothing; either you have a complete system figured out or you have nothing to offer. It would take multiple bar employees months or years to put it all together. That’s a big leap to take.

The payoff, though, would be huge—for both the bar association and its members. Bar associations already have a wealth of knowledge about practicing law, and ready access to member-volunteers who are experts in their areas of practice. No one is in a better position to figure out what it takes to be a successful law firm doing x type of legal work. It just requires investigating: find the successful practices and figure out what makes them tick.

Imagine a bar association that could offer its members, as a package deal, a successful and well-thought-out family, criminal, estate planning, consumer, small business, personal injury, or civil litigation practice model. Not only would this be a source of revenue for bar associations and a useful service to members, but it would also raise the quality of representation and service for the public. It would give the bar association a way to directly influence how law is practiced in its state. It’s a win-win for everybody.

It’s a big challenge, too. But the concept has already been proven by private businesses all over the country. It’s not a question of will it work, but of making it work.

I hope bar associations will take the risk and try to make it work.

What’s in a name?

My legal career has started with it’s fair share of zigs and zags. There was job searching and interning, planning and solo lawyering, trying a regular job at my state bar, and finally landing in a fledgling elder law firm. All along the way I’ve maintained an interest in blogging, and my blog has been through many iterations. It feels like I’ve remade my wordpress site a thousand times already. But I have to admit that it’s time for another change of course.

Each remake has come from a change in my career. I’ve always tried to be strategic about my writing and use it to advance my career goals; so every time my career takes a turn, my blog has to as well. It turns out there have been more turns than I thought there would be on this journey.

All this is to say: “The Editing Lawyer” is probably not the best title for this blog anymore; that’s what I used to do. It seems I’m in need of another rebranding. But I’d like this to be the last time, even if my career takes another unexpected turn.

Perhaps I can achieve that by focusing less on my current job and more on who I am as a professional. One of the main goals of having a blog, after all, is to let people see a bit of who you are beyond your resume. The tradeoff is that it won’t be a niche-focused blog, which is the type that can really pay off in the long run.

When your legal niche keeps changing, do you keep throwing away old blogging efforts? Or is it better, as a young lawyer, to just blog about whatever you do professionally, without trying to create a narrowly tailored site?

Missing: Bar association leaders online

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.

Perfectionism

I wrote an article on perfectionism for the Young Lawyers Division newsletter earlier this year. After starting my new job at the State Bar as an editor, a colleague asked me to update it for the bar-wide newsletter, Inside Track. It’s published now, and you can read it here.

What I wrote was mostly self-reflection. I’ve had good feedback on it so far—perhaps because lawyers, as a whole, aren’t very open about their own struggles or emotions. In fact, my colleague took care to confirm that I felt comfortable exposing my piece to a broader audience. (I appreciated the thought, though I wouldn’t have submitted the article in the first place if I were worried about that sort of thing.)

As an editor at a state bar, my work focuses on communicating useful technical knowledge to lawyers. Our primary business is publishing books about the law and law practice. Sometimes, though, we all need a different kind of knowledge—the knowledge that others deal with the same fears and foibles as us. I’m thankful for that reminder.