The ABA’s 7.7 Million Reasons

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?

61 thoughts on “The ABA’s 7.7 Million Reasons

  1. Dan

    “For the economics-impaired, no organization can sustain itself at an operating deficit. ”

    But the Government is trying awfully hard to…

    1. SHG Post author

      Little do you know that the deep state is betting on bitcoin to leverage its way out of its deficit mess. That and the govt doesn’t depend on voluntary dues payments.

    1. SHG Post author

      I remember getting it, but nothing more. I have no memory of it having any relevance to my world, though I do vaguely remember being pestered constantly to join the new lawyer division for an additional fee.

  2. wilbur

    It’s interesting that ABA SJW bhio did not respond to the assertion that there can be more than one opinion on these hot button issues.


    Ummm, okay.

    Anyway the real ABA went out of business in the late 70s, when they merged with the NBA.

        1. wilbur

          I had a brother-in-law (we were married to sisters) who played several years in the ABA followed by the NBA. Unsurprisingly, he was not woke enough at the time to have a problem with the tri-color ball. At least he never mentioned it.

    1. wilbur

      Not to mention – but I am – that zhe seems to use “detracting” or “detract” as a synonym for “denigrate” or “criticize”. The usage is, per the good folks at Merriam-Webster, archaic.

  3. DaveL

    These are lawyers? Who taught them to argue? Granted, turning an opponent’s argument back on him can be an effective tactic, but it requires that your respective circumstances be symmetrical. The ABA is the one seeking to increase paid membership, its detractors are not trying to poach away its members on behalf of some competing, conservative legal association. If you’re trying to sell somebody the $500 undercoat on a used car, and they tell you “No, I don’t think that gives me enough value for my money”, it won’t work to counter with “Well, YOU’RE not giving ME enough value for MY money!”.

    1. SHG Post author

      Those who disagreed with the ABA’s social justice stance weren’t so much arguing the propriety of the politics as they were explaining why they left the organization. It was an explanation, not something to dispute. The response was not merely alienating (and proved their point), but missed the point entirely. Right or wrong, they preferred maple walnut. That someone else hates maple walnut doesn’t change their ice cream order.

            1. LocoYokel

              I can lead the horse to the trough, but that’s as far as I can make it go. I don’t think ice cream would mail nearly as well as ribs.

    2. B. McLeod

      Indeed, ABA does not recognize that it is trying to sell something, and that insulting and trying to silence everyone in its target market who will not toe the party line is not going to be very effective salesmanship.

  4. Richard Kopf


    From the tweet stream of the ABA Journal today, “Policymakers are work to protect needy schoolchildren from #lunchshaming and the stigma that goes with it.”

    All the best.


  5. Jim Tyre

    I feel a great disturbance in the force. McLeod has not yet sensed an ABA-themed post, on which he could perma-rant.

    For the economics-impaired, no organization can sustain itself at an operating deficit.

    Clearly, your understanding of dotcomenomics is lacking.

    1. B. McLeod

      I had already heard of the pissing and moaning that took place in Vancouver. More ABA staff cuts are coming, and they are rolling out a “purely voluntary” severance program for senior staff. As members continue to cut off their sues support and leave, some number of woke progressives are going to have to go over the side or be eaten. It will be ABA’s special version of “Yarn of the Nancy Bell.” I need to go buy some popcorn.

        1. Charles

          If you go to Canada, you don’t have to apologize for the staff cuts. The Canadians apologize for you.

          1. SHG Post author

            Good point, but given the ABA’s political sensitivity and perspective, it would have seemed going south rather than north was a more equitable choice. TEQUILA!!!

            1. B. McLeod

              There are numerous reasons why the southern choice absolutely wouldn’t work. Only one of them is the core ABA racism that precludes meetings in Mexico.

        2. B. McLeod

          It is not the first time. Several years ago, they held the meeting in Toronto, and ignored all subsequent criticism of that decision. There was a special booth at the Toronto meeting passing out free condoms (ostensibly as some kind of AIDS awareness campaign). I think the delegates have simply caught on to the relative quality and ready availability of Canadian sex workers to the foreign tourist.

            1. B. McLeod

              I was a dues-paying member in that day, but did not personally participate in the Toronto junket. Of course, I heard some things after, but there is no point taking this down the white rabbit hole.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        ABA’s special version of “Yarn of the Nancy Bell.”

        The difference being, of course, that the ship sighted near the end of the ABA’s yarn will be full of Republicans whose dislike of the ABA might lead them to understand the organization is no longer capable of properly vetting either judges or law schools. It won’t really be a rescue, as such.

        1. SHG Post author

          Are you suggesting the ABA’s legacy role in vetting judges or accrediting law schools might be affected by their political shift?

  6. Skink

    The Journal makes an excellent coaster, especially when more than one person is drinking at a small table. Using it in that manner is environmentally responsible, as it keeps important stuff–like paper towel–out of landfills.

  7. Anonymous

    The progressives aren’t just making a mess of the ABA and the Dems. I got into an argument with fellow board members for our state defense lawyer association the other day because multiple members wanted us to lobby against stand your ground laws. One member told me we existed to serve our members, not our clients, and that blind devotion to our clients would harm our credibility. Rather we needed to follow our morals. It never occurred to this person that some defense lawyers may feel differently.

    1. SHG Post author

      How can anyone disagree with morality? That would be . . . immoral.

      The irony here is that he’s right in the sense that the assn exists to serve its members. That fighting for one flavor of morality isn’t serving members is where he blows it. But then, passionate people can’t conceive of how anyone could possibly disagree. After all, all the woke lawyers on twitter say so.

  8. John Barleycorn

    You telling me that the Laurence Tribe ABA Membership Flyer, due out this spring, isn’t going to do the trick?

    It is going to be on glossy 100lb card stock you know and rumor has it Harvard might even allow their logo to be used indiscreetly.

  9. Hunting Guy

    Many a quote is appropriate.

    Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”

  10. B. McLeod

    So, basically, the few opposing voices that have not already been banned from commenting at ABA Journal seek to convey the reasons why they left (which, though anecdotal, could have a bearing on the membership and dues decline). The reaction by ABA stalwarts is to insult them and argue with them, then call for these voices also to be silenced. The organization has become a cesspool of stifling conformity, which provides nothing of value to most practicing lawyers. Notwithstanding the exchange in the comments, ABA officials never acknowledge the probable causes of their difficulties in their public meetings. They always try to present it as a general decline in membership organizations (or “millennials not being joiners”), which does not account for the concurrent growth in other attorney organizations such as the American Inns of Court and associations outside the ABA that are organized by subject matter,

    Since the report Rives gave in January 2017, total membership is down and the percentage of the members who are Student Members has increased to a reported 26%. Padding on these Student Members was a desperation tactic to bolster the paper membership rolls, but they are “free” memberships. Consequently, to the organization, they are a source of cost in services and bring in no meaningful dues. Many of the claimed 288,000 lawyer members are also “free” members who have been “granted” these memberships via the ABA’s aggressive telephone membership pushers. Again, they pad the rolls, but bring no revenue.

    What we are seeing is a rabid leftist organization whose members, like so many leftists everywhere, are unwilling to carry the cost to continue “the work.” Now they are angry that the adults are leaving, and cutting off their allowances. The clever plan to make up the lost revenue by selling books and insurance has already failed, and the organization has now turned to marketers for a new “One ABA” dues structure that will suck revenues away from the sections that are still viable based on member dues. It is likely that this, too, will fail. By its dogmatic, leftist rigidity and its insistence on pursuing a political agenda unrelated to the profession, the ABA has committed suicide.

    1. PseudonymousKid

      Hey, hey, McLeod. Careful on the screed against who you call “leftists.” I know you’re a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist and wouldn’t want to be grouped up with these progressives either. Who would on our side of the aisle, comrade? You could say we went wrong at Trotsky, but the division is deeper than that. Intersectionality threatens the class struggle. Workers are workers; capitalists are capitalists. Solidarity is the only way forward.

      The class struggle is related to everything. If the ABA went wrong it was at highlighting the individual over the group. Whether that’s an actual class or a definite group like solos or small firms, the ABA ignored its core purpose like you say. It deserves what it wrought.

  11. Matthew S Wideman

    The ABA journal Twitter page makes The Democratic Party look like Goldwater Conservatives. Jeeze, everything begins and ends with Social Justice.

  12. Liam McDonald

    This has actually nothing to do with politics, left or right. This is simple economics.
    A company or organization does not provide a good product for their target group as a whole and so it goes out of business.

  13. Erik H

    The ABA is not a good professional organization. The cost/benefit is bad, though perhaps it’s different if you’re a partner at Cravath.

    Similarly, the ABA is a not a very good political organization. Obviously it has lost anyone who is outside the left, but that isn’t all: even if you swing progressive, why would you give $300 to the ABA instead of giving it to the Bronx Freedom Fund? Why wouldn’t you keep it and provide an extra $300 of pro bono work in your local community?

    The ABA is top-heavy and inefficient. It doesn’t deserve any charity dollars and it certainly hasn’t proven its worth otherwise.

    1. B. McLeod

      This is another very good point. In his 2017 report, Rives talked about cutting out ABA activities which are simply duplicative of functions already performed by others. Rationally, that should have included all of ABA’s political activities (but apparently the ABA leadership can’t see that). I think you are spot-on that lawyers who want to spend their money on Democratic policy initiatives already have a mechanism to do that through the DNC and other party organizations. To that end, it is simply more efficient for them to give the money directly to those political organizations.

  14. Rendall

    You lawyer fellows are lucky, with the ABA berating you only for having unapproved reasons for not giving them money. The Social Justice Warrioress mating call is to berate men (as a whole) for not being more attracted to women who are overweight / poorly dressed / “neuro-atypical” / have a penis / whatever. It is the most chilling sound in the world.

    1. SHG Post author

      Some guys like women who are overweight/poorly dressed/“neuro-atypical”/have a penis/whatever. And the ABA.

Comments are closed.