ISBA evolves to meet changing needs of attorneys

By Marilyn Odendahl • modendahl@ibj.com

 

Although the decision rankled some, the Indiana State Bar Association will not host a formal dinner for past presidents during the annual meeting in October.

The change was not intended to slight those who have devoted great effort and many hours to leading the association, but rather reflects that attitudes are shifting, people want a reason to join any organization, and the ISBA has to remain relevant or it will become a relic.

“At the end of the day, if people find value, they will support you,” said Joe Skeel, executive director of the ISBA. “But they’re not going to support you if you don’t give them something they can’t get somewhere else.”

Exactly how the ISBA will continue to attract members and keep them engaged in professional and community activities is an open question. Attorneys in the middle and late stages of their career might be comfortable with the way things have always been, but younger lawyers are pushing the need for a new way to do business. They’re not interested in joining the association just because past generations joined.

Consequently, the association is trying to find the balance to accommodate the old and new attitudes. Discussions include input from stakeholders, Skeel said, and decisions come with explanations so even those who still disagree can at least understand why the change was made.

The past presidents dinner was moved from the annual meeting to a date in November to create more of a feeling of inclusiveness within the ISBA. In previous years, the former leaders would all break away and go off by themselves for their own special event, but when attorneys from around Indiana gather in French Lick this year, the association wanted all the members to mingle and connect rather than huddle in their own clubs.

Evansville attorney Steven Hoar, vice chair of the ISBA Membership and Membership Benefits Committee, remembers being practically starstruck when he attended his first annual meeting as a newly minted lawyer. He encountered Indiana Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals judges and lawyers whose reputations he knew well.

Hoar, partner at Kahn Dees Donovan & Kahn LLP, echoed Skeel in pointing out that new attorneys want a reason to join the ISBA. However, Hoar believes the state bar is already providing a lot of benefit to lawyers who are just beginning to practice. By joining, the new attorneys can meet other lawyers from around the state, hone their legal skills, get involved in the different sections and committees, and have an impact on the legal profession.

When he was starting, Hoar conceded he joined the association out of a sense of duty but, to his regret, he did not fully participate until later. “If you can get them to the annual meeting,” Hoar said of younger lawyers, “then they’ll see how great the association is.”

No more normal

The ISBA’s annual meeting will come as the American Bar Association is undergoing a painful adjustment. Declining membership and decreasing revenues pushed the ABA to lay off staff and implement a new dues structure.

Change was necessary, according to a memo written by ABA deputy executive director James Dimos and chair of the ABA membership committee, Tracy Giles. Doing nothing, they predicted, would keep the ABA “on a trend line that will render it irrelevant and fiscally unviable.”

Skeel acknowledged the ISBA has seen a decline in membership and revenue. He estimated for the past eight to 10 years, the organization has been operating at a deficit and relying on cash reserves.

Although he is hoping to reverse the downward trend, he is not expecting the roll of members to reach the size it once was. The profession itself is getting smaller as fewer individuals are becoming lawyers and people in general are not joining social groups or professional clubs like they used to.

“The new norm is that there is never going to be a norm,” Skeel said.

At the Allen County Bar Association, executive director Gina Zimmerman is convening a kitchen cabinet to advise and keep the organization vibrant. The idea was actually inspired by a staff member who was excited about working for the local bar but was not sure the association had much of a future because she did not see many young people getting engaged.

Zimmerman has pulled together a group of about eight young attorneys and relies on them to give her feedback and make sure the association is appealing to the next generation. Like Skeel, she noted the Allen County Bar cannot ignore the attorneys who have belonged for years, so it has to communicate and have frank discussions.

Similarly, the Lake County Bar Association finds ways to serve its diverse membership who not only practice in different areas of the law but also work in different and distinct communities. One of the ways the association creates a sense of community is by publishing the annual bar book that lists the names and contact information of all the members.

The book is popular and, along with the CLE and other activities the association offers, it helps give something that all associations say is increasingly important to members — value.

“What I’ve seen since I’ve been here is people are really trying to decide where their money should go,” Debra White, executive director of the Lake County Bar Association said. “They have budget restraints. They want to get the most bang for their buck.”

Picking a lane

In talking about the ISBA, Skeel underscores the association is going to focus and not try to be all things to all people.

“I think it’s critical for associations, and us included, to figure out what do we do, what can we do and what should we be doing that nothing else really can or should,” Skeel said. “Once we identify what those things are, then that’s what we need to own and that’s our lane.”

Yet, Skeel does not want to close off the ISBA. Instead, he wants to seek out way to partner with other organizations, such as local bar associations. As an example, the state bar is working with the St. Joseph County Bar Association to offer a six-hour continuing legal education program that incorporates the best programming from the solo and small firm conference.

“The ISBA will have to adapt and evolve or it will become irrelevant, because people will find whatever we do somewhere else,” Skeel said.

Carlton Lee Martin, president of the Marion County Bar Association, said young lawyers are thinking carefully what to join, in part, because student loan obligations are limiting how much they have to spend.

Value is important, but so is the potential to make a difference. As he pointed out, along with providing services to help attorneys establish and grow their practices, the MCBA is a strong advocate for African-American lawyers and the larger African-American community. That advocacy is a hallmark of the bar, Martin said, and a key to attracting members.

Returning to Evansville after finishing from law school, Yvette LaPlante joined the Evansville Bar Association to network and make friends. She is now more than 10 years in practice and an attorney in her father’s law firm, Keating & LaPlante so, she said, she needs different things from the bar association.

As the president of the Evansville Bar Association, she is constantly thinking about how to offer something for all the different attorneys at different stages of their career. She is coming to believe that possibly members are most attracted by the opportunity to be part of an organization.

“People like to belong to something that gives them a sense of purpose and community,” LaPlante said.•

 

Originally published in the Indiana Lawyer