By: Chad Burton, CEO of CuroLegal

Every bar association in the country needs to consider rebranding their organization with a hipper, cooler name and logo. How about “[Current President’s] Fun Shack” or “Cool Attorneys’ Club of [State/City/County]”? Bars could continue using the scales of justice as a logo or go with an image of Justin Bieber in handcuffs. Kidding. Obviously. Can you imagine those board meetings? Or membership surveys seeking feedback?  

A recent Harvard Business Review article went at the heart of the challenges for associations in general, pointing at solutions for how such groups remain relevant in light of shrinking numbers and engagement. While the rebranding/renaming was a lead solution, the real takeaway is for associations to enhance their role/relationship with members.

This is especially accurate for bar associations. While the legal profession goes through intense, but slow and steady evolution, bars are right in the middle of the changing marketplace. With law firm models evolving due to consumer demand, lawyers are looking for help on how to ride the evolution.

The Challenges

Bar associations remain a key player to steer the profession into the future. However, another emerging player over the past several years is legal tech. Tech companies have leveraged the cloud to help law firms modernize and improve their practice management. Practice management is area where bars used to be the only show in town. Bars have been thrown into the same market with their own vendors and are competing to help lawyers build and maintain modern practices. With tight budgets and/or leadership fearful of change, associations are competing for the attention of lawyers with companies that seemingly have endless resources — often thru venture capital funding.

At first blush, that sounds dramatically depressing for bar associations. False. THIS IS A GOOD THING! Stick with me…

The Opportunities

While every bar may have its unique challenges, it is pretty universal at this point that associations are trying to figure out how to best serve and engage younger lawyers. They are the future. Good or bad, gone are the days when lawyers join and engage in bar activities because that is just what you do as a professional. It used to be the place where you go for all of your information and CLE. However, private companies and the Internet have a ridiculous amount of information where being part of a member of a group is not necessary (or is cheaper). Plus, with social media and other online opportunities, engaging with lawyer peers is not solely within the realm of the bar world.

This scenario creates an interesting dynamic for the future of bar associations. One option is to put blinders on and operate as is, with minor tweaks here and there suggesting that change is occurring within the bar. This is an easy route and often can placate established members who may not see the value of technology or feel the changes within the profession. This, mind you, does not look towards the future.  

The other option, and the rational one, is to step back and look at membership as a whole.  What does it mean in 2016 and beyond?  Why are younger lawyers not joining or engaging in bar activities?  What is it that the profession needs that no one else can provide to lawyers?

Answer:  to become an extension of a lawyer’s practice. The bar needs to be the first place a lawyer turns to to figure out how to better serve their clients. This could include starting a firm, fixing a broken firm model, figuring out how to implement new technology, or just to be the resource for whatever comes up on a random day where they’re stuck trying to figure out how to help their clients. This is about the bar association helping lawyers with the business of law — while upholding the standards of the profession and protecting the public. None of these issues are mutually exclusive.

How do we get there?

I had the opportunity in Summer 2015 to give a TED-like talk to the National Association of Bar Executives on the role of legal technology in the profession. The three takeaways that I presented remain true today that will help bar associations serve members well into the future:

First, associations need to re-think their member benefits with regard to technology.  The current practice is for bars to provide discounts for tech solutions to its members.  While discounts are all well and good, $5.00 or $10.00 off a monthly license fee does not significantly help a lawyer run a better practice. In other words, it is time for bars to overhaul what it means to provide “member benefits” through outside vendors. This is where the opportunities exist for bar associations to lead the charge with technology by either building/implementing their own tech or partnering with industry leaders (i.e., typically those discounted member benefits) to find new and creative ways to help their members.  

Second, the bar association needs to become the go-to resource to help grow a member’s practice. This means that whenever something regarding practice operations comes up, lawyers turn to the bar to figure out a solution — whether it’s about growing their client base, starting a new firm, rebuilding a failing firm, or to closing down a shop when either a new opportunity comes along or retirement is looming.

Third, bars need to optimize their practice management offerings. This is tied to the items above. Many bars have committees and staff who work on practice management for members. These folks are the brightest minds in the industry, but they are naturally limited in services they can provide because of the sheer volume of members and hours in the day. Again, this means looking to outside resources, such as the legal tech space or outsource practice management offerings, to either fill voids if no practice management solutions are being offered or to help supplement and support existing staff or committees.

Renaming a bar may seem silly and illogical, but it is still necessary to re-engineer what the organization offers. The role of the bar is changing and figuring out how to grow and maintain relevance is a lot more complicated than a new logo. Many bars are working on this, and leaders will emerge who will serve as models for others.

See? This is a good thing. We have exciting changes in progress that seem to make headlines on a weekly basis.  There is endless opportunity for those who choose to keep up and step up.