By Kevin Ryan, Esq.
Naples, Florida, is hot in mid-September, in case you were wondering. Daytime temperatures climb into the 90s, and the humidity creates a wall of dampness into which you crash each time you leave air-conditioned interiors (and has the incidental effect of making you a damp mess at the same time). At night it cools all the way down to the low 80s, permitting wonderful walks along the beach but making outside dining (something we northerners will do any chance we get) a steamy affair relieved only slightly by multiple orders from the bar. (I know what you’re thinking.) One can imagine oneself as a character in a Hemingway tale set in South Florida or the Keys (though would any of us really want to be one of those unsavory characters?) – or, for modern readers of lighter fiction, someone wandering through the pages of a Carl Hiaasen novel. The heat, the fans, the beach and the waves, all contribute to that daydream. Given the heat, daydreaming is a strenuous activity.
MCBA President Mark Moretti and I spent several days in Naples recently, attending the Conference of Metropolitan Bar Associations (COMBA) and hobnobbing with other bar association leaders. It was the first time doing the COMBA for both of us. I had heard from others that this was a tremendous conference – and they were right. Mark and I came back inspired with new ideas, bursting with new enthusiasms, excited about new approaches to perennial bar association issues. (Mark has actually composed a lengthy list of things he’d like to try here in Rochester.)
It’s amazing what you can learn from conversations with others who do what you do. For one, you learn that they face many of the problems and issues you face. For another, you learn that many of the ideas you have for facing them have been tried by others, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. For yet another, you sometimes get a glimpse of the future when you learn that others have confronted something that has yet to appear on your radar – but as you listen to them you find that some of the advance warning signals they received are beginning to be faintly heard back home as well. Those have long been the benefits of professional development conferences. That’s why I am a big supporter of professional development: one comes back excited and filled with new ideas; one comes back having tapped the collective mind of the profession and taken away the best it has to offer (see Mark’s list).
There is no normal time for bar associations, and metropolitan bars nationwide are starting to take notice. Business as usual can no longer be permitted; it’s “business as unusual” that the times require. Things are going to change – indeed, things are changing – and bar associations must either get on board or get left behind. Much has been written about this – some of it by me. And this theme lay at the heart of COMBA this year: bar associations face a drastically changed environment and we need to figure out how to thrive in it – or face disaster (not too strong a word).
The eye of this particular hurricane is a change in the nature of membership. Lawyers no longer join their local bar association because “it’s what you do.” No, they pick and choose their commitments and must be shown why bar membership is valuable to their lives and careers. (I’ve had managing partners ask for my help in getting their younger attorneys more involved in the bar association.) What is the key benefit bar associations offer their members? I’ve had this conversation many times with bar leaders at the local, state, and national levels – and the most common answer is CLE, though sometimes the answer involves some variation on the word “networking.” But in a market featuring more and more suppliers of “free” CLE, a member’s discount on programs is no longer a draw – just as it has never been a draw for government attorneys. Discounts on things (especially things tangentially related to the life of a legal professional like rental cars and life insurance) may be nice, as add-ons to something more substantial, but they are not enough in themselves. And some of the things we have sold to members – for instance, printed things such as directories, magazines, or materials – resemble DVDs where they don’t resemble eight-track tapes: the need for them, their place in the life of a twenty-first century professional, is diminishing rapidly where it has not disappeared altogether. It won’t be long before our members don’t want or need these things at all.
In addition, in a world in which networking happens in dozens of newfangled ways, a world filled with people who have grown up (or grown accustomed to) connecting with others online or through apps of various sorts, the opportunity to enter a room with hundreds of other lawyers and be talked at by some series of speakers or set of panelists just doesn’t have the same cachet or seductiveness it once had. Don’t believe me? Check out the attendees at your next big “event.” My bet is that most of them will be people over fifty (maybe over sixty), people who have grown up in receptions and dinners and who have the money to pay the (usually sizable) entry fee. A world with Tinder and Uber and Yelp is fundamentally different from the world of annual dinners, and unless our big events give off the same vibe as Tinder and Uber and Yelp, we will find attendance and revenues dwindling – and members going elsewhere.
Newer generations expect their association to mimic the engagement experience they get in nearly all other aspects of their lives – the experience one gets from Google, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, Airbnb, Lyft, and a host of others in the new economy. They expect us to make the “membership experience” exceptional; they expect us to make it smooth and easy; they expect us to offer interesting ways in which they can connect with each other, offer opinions on products and services, and get tips from each other. They expect it to come at little or no cost, perhaps in a subscription format, and to come “just in time,” when they need it rather than when they don’t. They expect things to happen quickly, almost instantaneously. Spend hundreds on bar association dues and get . . . what? CLE programs where you go somewhere, sit in a chair, and listen to a panel of talking heads? Discounts on hotel rooms less than what you can get on Hotels.com? A “member’s price” on over-priced and under-flavored “banquet chicken” dinners at convention centers? A totally static print magazine or book of phone numbers and email addresses? A website designed years ago, cluttered with text and photos of the (gray-haired) attendees at that over-priced dinner, and requiring a series of clicks to get where you want to go (assuming you can figure that out)?
There are generations of people coming up who don’t want these things, at least not bad enough to shell out a big chunk of change each year without more. What they want has more to do with a sense of belonging to something they believe in, and with a need to further their careers and their lives. Indeed, they often see career and life as tightly integrated: my generation started thinking about work-life balance; this generation thinks about life as composed of closely connected experiences involving profession, family, and commitments – holistic rather than linear. And their views are influencing older generations as well. Simon Sinek, whose TED talk “Start with Why” (based on his bestselling book of the same title) has been seen by more than two million viewers (the third most-viewed video on the TED site, according to Wikipedia), insists that “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it” (emphasis added). That means, he argues, that “The goal is not to do business with people who desire what you have . . . [but] to do business with people who believe what you believe.” So just doing stuff, just providing stuff, no longer meets the needs of today’s members and won’t keep them tied to you. Rather, businesses and associations need to offer potential members a picture of why they do what they do – a vision that strikes a chord with potential members because they see themselves in it, a vision that jibes with what potential members think of themselves and who they’d like to be.
This is heady but important. If we want lawyers to see joining the bar association as “the thing to do,” we must show them how membership is part of their vision of themselves. They must come to feel (I use that verb intentionally, not as a flabby substitute for the verb “to think”) that the bar association is modern, hip, attuned to their needs, alive in the same atmosphere of the other sorts of (mostly online) interactions they have. The bar association needs to be felt to be more like Google than the Rotary Club, more like Amazon or Pandora than like Montgomery Ward or the Columbia Record Club. That requires a major refocusing of bar association work: a shift to a nimbler, online, member-driven kind of interaction – a shift away from providing things toward fitting into (even helping generate) a vision of professional and personal life, a shift from what to why.
So, while the sand no longer filters through my toes and the sweat no longer streams down my forehead upon setting foot outdoors, I have not forgotten my adventures in Naples. It’s taken me a while to distil the essence of what we learned in that chilly conference room on the Gulf, to strip away the incidental details from the underlying theme. But I think I’ve done it: it’s the theme I’ve written about before, the idea that we are hurtling toward a future we can’t yet see, and looking backward won’t help. It doesn’t hurt to repeat this message over and over again. Old habits die hard, and old institutional habits die even harder. That means that we live in interesting times. May we be up to the challenge.