Bar Associations Are Outdated: It’s Time to Reinvent

April 28, 2021, 8:00 AM

Bar associations worldwide have seen their membership numbers decline over the past decade. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the downward trend, as a key member benefit—in-person events—were canceled.

But the pandemic isn’t the only reason bar associations are having trouble keeping their membership numbers up—as older members retire, younger, tech-savvy lawyers are entering the workforce saddled with debt.

In 2019, 11% of local bar associations said they saw memberships decline by 7% to 10%, compared to 4% in 2018. Also, 10% saw a decline of 4% to 6% in 2019, an increase from the 4% of local bars that saw those numbers in 2018. Additionally, 45% of associations reported membership increases in 2019, down from 48% in 2018.

Younger attorneys don’t find value in the old bar association model because they don’t have the same values as older members. As networking, communication, business, and technology have evolved, the traditional bar association has not.

Simply put: If bar associations want to not just stem the bleeding of membership declines, but actually improve their numbers, they need to think outside the traditional offerings.

Community Service, Engagement Opportunities

State and local bar associations must re-examine what they’re providing their members and reinvigorate their offerings if they want to attract new members and retain existing ones. The decline in membership makes it obvious the current model isn’t working, so the values and benefits offered need to be reassessed and realigned with what members are actually looking for that will provide them with benefits to their professional and personal lives.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, people aren’t afraid to pay for memberships or subscriptions services that give them what they want. Disney Plus, Netflix, and Peloton are three subscription services that have seen growth during these hard times because they provide a quality product, whether it be entertainment or exercise. In fact, more and more consumers are cutting their cable in favor of streaming services to save money.

Comparing legal associations and streaming platforms isn’t exactly apples-to-apples, but the basic principle is the same: Successful services provide real utility and value to their members in a way that aligns with their demands.

No longer will bar associations be able to offer a 15% discount at Office Depot and quarterly social events to keep members in their ranks or attract young, up-and-coming lawyers with less established practices who could really use the resources and networking opportunities.

Instead of solely basing their value on the “club” aspect, legal professional organizations need to derive value by offering content and tools to members, while creating opportunities for advancement, education, community service, and engagement.

Redefining the Value of Membership

Like many professional associations, DRI has had to pivot during the pandemic to better serve members and address their changing realities. Face-to-face events have been out of the question for the past year, but that doesn’t mean members are cut off from each other.

We moved networking events online to keep people connected and maintain a “club” feeling, which is still a valid and necessary part of being a member of a professional association. We’re also including a variety of useful, relevant content to members so they can stay on the forefront of policies and current issues that relate to defense law.

DRI’s Center for Law and Public Policy is another facet of our membership’s value, which drives DRI’s national leading Amicus Program as well as various committees that focus on cutting-edge legal public policy issues, including climate change, jury preservation, and maintaining the integrity and viability of the civil justice system.

The center also works directly with policymakers to provide testimony, counsel, public comment and research. Members are looking for their associations to not only offer CLE and networking opportunities, but to represent their interests as well.

Additionally, DRI is beginning to put an increased focus on the DRI Foundation, which will focus on wellness for its members, along with participation in various philanthropic activities.

The focus on wellness will not only be through traditional programs that focus on supporting mental health and substance abuse problems within the profession. It will also include opportunities for our members to lead healthy and sustainable lives through work/life balance, exercise and quality-of-life initiatives.

The opportunity for DRI members to engage in philanthropic activities will give them opportunities to give back to the communities where they live and work through public service by partnering with community organizations. For example, during the 2020 DRI Leadership Conference, members formed teams and enjoyed the opportunity to build bikes that were then donated to the Officer and Gentleman Academy in Chicago.

People today want to know their money is going to improve the lives of those outside the legal ecosystem in their communities. Seeing the real-life impact of their efforts helps members feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves making a difference in the world.

The value for our members is that they aren’t just helping themselves—they’re helping their colleagues, other lawyers, and their communities while driving forward progression in public policy issues.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Dean Martinez is the CEO of DRI, a leading organization for defense attorneys and in-house counsel. Previously, he served as CEO and general counsel for the Association for Supply Chain Management.

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