Doing the COMBA

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 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.








Top 10 reasons I love my job…

The list exceeds 10, but I figure I may only have your attention for the top 10…

#10 – I am never bored — Throughout any given week, I meet with a variety of attorneys, judges, and community leaders, and work on various projects. While it means I need to keep organized to do lists, it also means I am never bored. I have never been a clock watcher, in fact, the wall clock in my office had a dead battery in it for over 2 years till one of the team changed it, because it was driving them crazy. I’m not sure how I would do with the same task, day in and day out. Luckily for me, that is one aspect that I don’t have to worry about while working here.

#9 – My office — I have a great office. I have always made it a point to ensure my space is bright, and inspires creativity for me. I need artwork, photographs of those that I love, photos of those that inspire me, resource books and magazines that I am always tapping into for inspiration. Latest addition, and the first desk that the MCBA has ever purchased for me in all these years, a standing desk. Spending more than 1/2 of my days in meetings in a seated position, it was time to start standing more, per some people that love me and care for me. If you have not stopped in recently, please do. When members and visitors to my office remark about the view, I respond, “What view?” I rarely have time to look out the window.

View from office

The view from the 10th floor.

#8 – Meeting extraordinary people — ABA, NYSBA, NABE, COMBA, GRAWA, RBBA, RDDC & RBA — I have had the luxury over the years to attend conferences and meet with other fantastic bar executives and community leaders from around the county, city, state and country. It is often a great melting pot of creativity, venting and productivity. After attending one of these conferences, I always return to the MCBA inspired and full of great ideas, and solutions.

#7 – T. Carl Nixon Board Room — I have seen many beautiful board rooms over the years, but I have to tell you, I think we have one of the most beautiful in town. I love walking in with someone that has never seen the room before, and listen for their response, “Oh Wow!” “This is incredible!” “That is one BIG table!” The best part of the T. Carl Nixon Board Room is that it is the Board Room for all of the legal service partners in the building as well as various committee and board meetings for our members.

#6 – Love working downtown — I am a believer in downtown Rochester! I love the energy of downtown, I love the ability to walk to various meetings or other events. I love engaging with members on the street as I walk. I love the smells, especially the Zweigle hots in the summer), and the diversity of the people on the streets. I make it a point of saying hello to everyone I meet. Some do not expect a greeting, and it seems to bring a smile to their face as they respond to me. Others don’t respond at all, but maybe they will next time. Perhaps I will spend more time at Main and State this summer during lunch so I can catch up with more of you. I sit on the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation Board of Directors, where I am a broken record on the topic of appreciation to the legal community in downtown Rochester. If the lawyers continue to leave downtown, the impact will be devastating and fatal to our Center City. There are exciting developments underway in our city, and I am confident they will happen and our DT world will be the hot, happening place to be. I have thought about moving downtown to one of the increasingly popular lofts, but I need to be able to buy, not rent (as I am WAY too young to give up a mortgage) and I need outdoor space to replace the porch. I don’t think a new owner of my house would appreciate  finding me out on their porch nights and weekends. I should get a legal opinion on whether or not we could write that into the sale contract.

#5 – Engagement with the Judges — We have terrific judges in all of our courts in Rochester and Monroe County. I really appreciate those that demonstrate their dedication to the MCBA by joining the Association, and being actively engaged with the bar. I also appreciate the open dialogue that I have with those that may not be members, and wish to discuss the reasons. Our dialogues are always open and honest. 

#4 – Telesca Center for Justice — After 10 years of co-location I still get a thrill when I walk into the incredible lobby, where I no longer have to stare at the broken and dusty escalator. I used to think about how I could fill the esclator with plants in an effort to hide the multi-ton eye-sore. So nice to now have my mind at ease on that topic. I still get a thrill coming off the elevator on 10, and walking into our beautiful space, and on 5 as well. We are all very fortunate!

#3 – Great Team — We have a great group of dedicated people that work at the MCBA. Diane Hill, Mark Swail, Dianne Nash, Dajaneé Parrish, Ginny LaCour (for 4 more months only as she is retiring), Merritt Smith, Louise Spinelli, Liz Novak and Kathy Fico. They are hardworking, they are fun to be with and all have a sense of humor (see today’s email exchange from me), they are dedicated to our Boards and to all of you, our volunteers. We ask a lot of them, over many hours, and they deliver.

Funny Email Cropped Mary

Funny Email Cropped ginny

#2 – The Presidents — I am often asked by those that don’t understand bar associations, “Why do they only serve for 1 year?” What the presidents take on in a single year is extraordinary, while maintaining their practice, and trying to be present to their very patient families. One of the tips I give every new president is, let’s not fill your dance card, as “stuff happens” and your dance card will be filled automatically. Some listen, some don’t. That is where I build on my flexibility skill set!

#1 – The ability to be creative — This job is challenging, and associations are evolving. The trends in the practice of law are dynamic and evolving at an amazing pace. With four generations of members, and new leadership each year, my mind does not rest as I am constantly thinking of ways to increase our value to you as members, how to engage you with your colleagues, how to make it impossible for you to work, live and practice without us. I also appreciate that you, our loyal members, are always up for some creative dialogue and brainstorming.The challenge is daily, and it is what drives me. Some days I actually think I dream that I sent emails, as I will ask Ginny in the morning about the email I sent her last night. She will look at me and raise the eyebrow, doubting me, we will both go in search of the mystery email that does not exist, and I will then begin to wonder — did I dream that email? How powerful would it be if we could transfer those dreams to accomplish items on our task list? I know, this is sad. I am working at putting down technology earlier in the evening, and picking up a book. Right now I am reading, Dead Wake by Eric Larson.

Whether you are celebrating Passover or Easter or just a quiet weekend, enjoy these early days of spring. I plan to be on the porch tonight, after the gym and a meditation class with GRAWA, even if I am sitting under a fleece blanket, and with the outdoor heater on, and a nice glass of red wine, the porch will be open this evening by 8pm. Feel free to pop over, but knock hard as the door bell is broke. I really need to get that fixed.

Thanks for checking in…


What will we look like in 2024?

I remember that as a child I could not wait to grow up. Do you remember that feeling as a kid? “Why does life seem so slow?” “I feel as though I have been 11 forever, will I ever turn 12?” Ah’, those were the days. Now fast forward and our response sounds more  like: “No, it can’t possibly be my birthday already, I just had it…”. What we learn as we age is that life is moving faster than ever before.

I was reminded of this “aging reality” this past weekend while in attendance at a bar meeting, Conference of Metro Bar Associations (COMBA). I have written about COMBA before, but as a refresher, this particular conference is a favorite of both bar executives and presidents because it is small, and the attendees are all from local bars with anywhere from 1,000 to 8,000 members.

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Our keynote speaker was Mary Byers, author of several books about associations, Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations and Road to Relevance. I have read both of these books, along with many others, about the evolution underway for associations, and from each I receive insightful and thoughtful information to ponder throughout my days and nights. One of the themes that is running through all these books is that change is coming — we cannot deny it or stop it. So the question becomes, what do we do?

Mary challenged us to consider not what we are doing in 2014, but instead to be thinking about 2024, ten years out. Though I agree with Mary that we need to be looking 10 years out, I also believe we need to be looking 1, 3 and 5 years out.

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One of the other realities of bar association life is that we are creatures of habit. Our cultures are about retaining programs that we have managed forever simply because they have been around forever, with no thought or reflection about what impact we may be having in present day. How many members are utilizing these programs or services? Are the programs and services relevant? Are we creating impact? If associations are not moving to make change, but instead are locked in a time mode of doing everything like we have always done, Mary describes this as “association fear factor.” Association fear factor is when our failure to act on sun-setting a program or service is due to fear of offending a bar president or committee or section even though the program is no longer relevant.

Mary’s caution was that our associations will be evolving in the years to come and her challenge to us was, how will we respond to this evolution?

We will be facing a shift in these generational members in the coming years. For the MCBA, our largest population of members is in the Baby-Boomer group. Over the next 5-10 years, a large portion of this group will be looking to retire.

Some of the questions Mary has me asking about the MCBA:

What will we look like in 5 years? In 10 years?

Will our membership decline? If so, by how much?

What will our members want and expect from the MCBA?

What types of programs and services will members wants?

Will value-added programs for members outweigh programs for community?

Will the traditional dues model continue to exist or will the model evolve more into “menu type” model of fee for service?

Do we continue to support large committee and section infrastructures or do we develop “strike force teams” to assume a specific charge, do their work and get out, thus, relieving members of unnecessary meetings and giving them back the gift of time?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do believe this is a dialogue we should be encouraging at the Board level and at the Committee and Section levels. What do you think? Should we be talking about it? Are you interested in perhaps joining a small group to talk about the possible evolution of this association? If so, please send me a quick email at and let’s see what might transpire.

There were several “walk aways” for me. I heard many of my fellow conference go-ers speak about their challenges with young lawyers that are not engaged with the Association. This is not a challenge for us at the MCBA. We have a 20% participation rate from our young lawyers. Their section is vibrant and engaged in both educational programming as well as community service. They are seeking leadership opportunities, and once there, delivering on them. So I caution those of you that do not believe the young lawyers are engaged with the Association. The “Momma Bear” in me will come out in a very protective way to correct this misunderstanding.

YLS Group

Happy Fall! Thanks for checking in,


What I learned at the Conference of Metro Bar Associations …

Erie and MCBA bar dinner with COMBA sponsor NPP.

Erie and MCBA bar dinner with COMBA sponsor NPP.

Last week I was in attendance at the Conference of Metro Bar Associations (COMBA), along with MCBA President-Elect, Steve Modica. This is a small conference of local, metro bars between 1,000 and 6,000; so it is bars like us. It is always a great conference because the group is a manageable size; the presentations are on point with where we are; and the one-on-one conversations are invaluable because you can really drill down and ask detailed questions.

Fred Ury, Esq., talking about future trends in the profession.

Fred Ury, Esq., talking about future trends in the profession.

So here are the top 5 “walk aways” for me:

First, – is a website that rates lawyers. Now before you roll your eyes and say, “Mary, what are you thinking? Which is exactly what I did when I first heard the presentation, the message we heard was that the public/clients are using this site to check you out. So perhaps it is worth looking at your rating, and with only a few updates, you improve your rating. I checked out a number of you, and you are far better attorneys than this site portrays, so with some additions to your résumé, it does boost your rating. Check it out and tell me what you think. I know this is not the only site out there, but according to the presenters, it is getting a lot of attention.

Second, Google Scholar — free legal research. Before you dismiss this, perhaps you should check it out again as it is reported to be getting better and better. Not suggesting this is the ideal solution, but it may serve a purpose some of the time.

Third, Incubator Law Firms — where new lawyers invest for 12-18 months to cover their rent, shared office space, administrative support, while receiving training in business skills and professional development. Interesting concept. Would this model be viable in Rochester?

Fourth, a networking section — an interesting concept out of the Indianapolis Bar Association. The Indy Attorneys Network was established to promote the development of professional and personal relationships among the members of the Indy bar. Their goal is to create dialogue while building new relationships between members, with a goal of establishing relationships fostered by the networking group will impact the lives of their members.

Fifth, the conference was in Florida. I learned that I really don’t like Florida. When I was explaining this to my mom, she asked why. And of course, like many children, young and old, I blamed my parents. “Why is it my fault?,” she asked. I went on to remind her of the RV trip we took to Florida when I was a sophomore in college. My parents decided to pack me, my 5 brothers, my 2 parents in an RV, and if 8 of us were not enough, they let my brother, David, bring his friend, Vinnie along. Nine people in an RV going to Florida to visit my grandparents over  a 10 day period. Some of that time was spent in the crowded, crazy Disney World. Need I say more?

I know many of you are Florida lovers, so I mean no disrespect. Perhaps I have not been to the right location yet. If Elaine Cole reads this, she is going to cancel her invitation to have me visit. Elaine, perhaps your part of Florida will be the part of Florida that I fall in love with!

There were many other ideas that came out of the conference, but these were some of the highlights. All are focused on  assisting members in the practice of law, except for the last one — and that was all about my own personal self-discovery.

The MCBA is in the process of Strategic Planning, and so if any of these ideas are ones that you believe we should explore, then give us some feedback. What this means though, is that if we start something new, we MUST sunset another program. As always, we welcome your input.

Also one more thing, thank you to all who took the time out to take our website survey. We are getting a lot of great feedback. We look forward to taking all the information from the survey and using that to develop a new MCBA website. If you haven’t taken the survey yet please click here to take it. The survey will only take 5 minutes. Thank you!

Thanks for checking in,