Malarkey won’t pay the bills, as the ABA delegates were told. It’s dying and executive director Jack Rives gave the bad news.
Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ABA Executive Director Jack Rives told the ABA’s policy-making body that “this is no time to … take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,”and called on ABA leadership to take action to increase lawyer members.
Whenever someone gratuitously quotes MLK, the stink of desperation permeates the air. And the ABA’s circumstances are nothing if not desperate.
Forty years ago, 50 percent of the lawyers in the United States were members of the ABA. The ABA currently has a 22 percent market share.
Unsaid was how many of these “members” paid dues. Law students get free membership for their first year of practice, after which they’re expected to pay. Most leave. Former members are induced to rejoin by aggressive solicitations for a free year. Some take it, then quit again. Others hang up the phone. There being little transparency, who knows how these efforts are working out. Well, maybe the treasurer knows.
A later presentation by ABA Treasurer Michelle A. Behnke put a finer point on the membership decline, which has resulted in significant revenue losses for the organization. Even with deep cuts in the past year, the ABA’s operating deficit was $7.7 million for fiscal year 2017.
For the economics-impaired, no organization can sustain itself at an operating deficit. When the well runs dry, the rent check bounces and the lights get turned off.
The comments to the ABA Journal post are, surprisingly, quite enlightening. They reflect three basic issues with the association. First, there are complaints that the cost of membership exceeds the benefits received. Second, the association has always been focused on serving biglaw rather than small firms or solo practitioners, who comprise the bulk of lawyers.
But both of these complaints exist relative to the third complaint, that the ABA no longer reflects the concerns of lawyers, but has morphed into a social justice political organization. Some commenters didn’t so much disagree with these goals, but didn’t agree that it was the ABA’s place to be engaged in partisan politics rather than serve its guild function.
Most, however, made their beef clear.
The ABA leadership just does not get it. Lawyers started leaving the ABA when the ABA stopped representing lawyers and started pushing an active liberal agenda. Simplified dues categories and bundled benefits are not going to overcome that.
Rather than accept that this might be a reason for the stark decline in membership, supporters of the cause took commenters who explained why they left the association to task.
It’s true that the ABA leadership doesn’t get it because it gives free access to the ABA Journal and articles and gives this forum to freeloaders and cheapskates who take advantage of that free access all the while bitching about the ABA having stopped representing lawyers and pushing an active liberal agenda. I say cut off the free access and make the freeloaders and cheapskates pay for the privilege of whining about the ABA having stopped representing lawyers and started pushing an active liberal agenda.
And a particularly incensed commenter, who repeated his comments in response to every person who complained, added:
At the very least, it will result in you no longer posting your ignorant and whiny diatribes.
Much like its sister organization, the Democratic Party, the ABA suffers the ever-shrinking umbrella of ideological purity. And to tell this to the ABA is to invoke the wrath of the woke, who may not realize that their passion doesn’t serve to draw lawyers who have fled the association back. No doubt they believe that ad hominem attacks will prove to those on the fence that they want to be part of the tribe because they are the righteous people, but the comments suggest that it wasn’t working out as well as they hoped.
There is, of course, another approach that eludes the woke who fully support the ABA’s shift from a lawyer association to a social justice political organization. There is no reason why progressive lawyers should not be entitled to promote the things in which they believe, whether by a political party whose purpose is dedicated to such causes or a new bar association formed to serve that mission.
But this is the American Bar Association. Politics aside, it was never a bar association that had much to offer the majority of lawyers in America, whose interests and concerns were often different from those of white shoe law firms and academics who had their dues paid by their firms and were given time off to play in their sand box. Trench lawyers worked for a living, and the ABA was never inclined to tolerate the smell of sweat on hard-working lawyers.
The assumption that lawyers were all of a particular political persuasion, however, was more than lawyers were willing to tolerate. Even if they would pay the high dues, for which they received little in return other than a certificate to put on the wall, they were not inclined to have the dilettantes pick their political positions for them. This was true for many who agreed as well as the many who didn’t. The assumption was false.
Can lawyers be induced to return to the fold by some combo of simplified dues and bundled benefits?
The Magic 8-ball says “not likely.” The option was never limited to whether the ABA should swing left or right, but why it should swing at all. Apparently, the massive flight of lawyers from the association isn’t because the ABA got itself stuck in politics, but because all those members who left are politically wrong. The problem isn’t the ABA, but its irrational right-wing reactionary former members.
As for the $7.7 million operating deficit, what’s money when social justice is at stake?