Back in 2002, when I first survey, I concluded that the bars were serving the needs of solos and small firm lawyers fairly well. At that time, most bars had a robust web presence (at least for that time period) and offered a variety of online guides and forms to help solos get their practices off the ground. Unfortunately, times have changed, but most bar associations haven’t. In the six years that have transpired between the two surveys, there hasn’t been much progress at the bar sites.True, most of the solo guides remain online, but few have been updated to reflect new developments like outsourcing, social media or software as a service tools.
Regular readers know that I spent many years serving on the board and as a VP of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. I ultimately resigned, twice, from the Board. While I was happy to spend my time and effort contributing to something that served my profession and my friends, I had no interest in being involved with a group without purpose. It had no mission. It served no purpose. It simply existed.
The closest the association came to having purpose was to generate enough money from member dues and CLEs to pay for its Executive Director, whose job was to collect the dues and run the programs that generated the money that paid for the Executive Director. Not a good enough reason for me to be a member, no less a board member. And no one else seemed to notice that it was an exercise in futility.
For some, there was a strong motivation to claw their way up the ladder of bar association success. A few wanted desperately to become President so that the world would know how important they were. This was perhaps the dirtiest secret, that little people of dubious merit were living off the dues of their brethren for their own self-aggrandizement. The vanity of the insiders is hardly a good reason for membership.
Like most lawyers, I was a member of numerous specialty and general bar associations. I sat myself down and asked what I got for my dues. The answers ranged from little that meant anything to me, a private solo criminal defense practitioner, to nothing. While the rhetoric of “member benefits” grew increasingly hyperbolic to compensate for the total lack of substance, the simple fact was that these bar association made absolutely no difference in my practice.
Historically, lawyers joined bar associations. Lawyers are nothing if not slaves to tradition, and so new lawyers would sign up because it was the thing to do. Old lawyers would continue paying dues because they always paid dues. Few gave it a second thought. Fewer still actually considered whether they were receiving anything of value for their dues payment. And only a couple realized that many of these bar associations had devolved to the point of existing merely to exist. They did nothing to enhance their practice of law.
My lack of support has made many of my friends in the bar view me as a traitor. I refused to keep their secrets, and occasionally did the unthinkable of revealing that they were buck naked. When there was impropriety, I wrote about it. When there was cowardice and irresponsibility with the members money, I disclosed it. No one gave me an award for honesty.
The one thing that bar associations do well is throw a dinner, a chance for old friends to get together over a cocktail and talk. I always enjoyed the cocktail party before the speeches began. Then the awards portion of the program would spoil things, reminding me yet again that the bar associations lacked any purpose. As awards were given to the usual suspects who had done nothing worthy but could bring in a few extra paid tables, I was again confronted with the hard reality that the purposes of the founders, clear and well intended, had long since been forgotten.
In tough economic times, reassessment of bar association membership is due for the benefit of lawyers and bar associations alike. If a bar association serves no real purpose, then why are you a member? Are the ever-increasing dues worth it? And if they members stop paying, the handful of pseudo-official people who pretend to run it will be constrained to come to grips with the lousy job they’ve done as stewards. Only then will the hard choices be made; either serve a purpose or cease to exist.
Take a hard look at the dues you’re paying, and if you’re not getting any real value for it, vote with your wallet. We need bar associations now more than ever, and it’s time to stop enabling bar associations to fail to serve its members.