Under this title, the Legal Innovation group on LinkedIn provoked a pretty thoughtful discussion about one effect of the difficulties in the Law Biz.
The answer, in a word? "Value." More accurately, the perceived lack of it.
The problem is not unique to bar associations; it applies to all trade associations. The challenge of member apathy and the resulting slow erosion of the member base is a chronic problem, not just the product of difficult economies. It merely becomes more acute when times are tougher for the members. (We’re referring to bar associations for whom membership is optional, not those state bar associations for whom membership is mandatory for lawyers licensed in that state.) However, non-dues revenue from education, conferences, trade shows, publishing, etc., is a vital source of income for all trade associations, so even the mandatory bar associations experience the effects of member apathy.
This chronic problem becomes particularly acute when members have revenue-generating problems of their own, which is inarguably the case for many lawyers now.
Members who may have paid the annual dues renewal notice for years without giving it much thought now scrutinize the bar membership’s value, and often find that value too low relative to the cost, so they opt out “for now.”
According to a blog post by Brent Routman, past president of the MN Bar Association,
"Over 20 percent of new lawyers drop their bar association membership a year after graduation, when the free membership expires. Within three years of graduation, 41 percent have left the fold, most forever. This attrition, combined with the impending retirement of Baby Boomers, poses unprecedented membership challenges to bar associations in the years to come."
If new lawyers, presumably eager for any type of education, affiliation and support, find bar association membership so lacking, should we be surprised that more seasoned lawyers, whose experience would cause them to have even higher expectations, find membership lacking in value?
For many, it's a question of relevance. Bar associations traditionally have not offered help with business development challenges. Lawyers, for whom getting clients is now the critical issue, properly question the group’s relevance to their situation. (”The Convention: A New Lawyer Attends His First ABA Convention” is a biting, but funny, satire on this.)
Another problem for trade associations is one faced by all intermediary entities who previously held monopolies on information now instantly available via the Internet, e.g., news, entertainment, etc. Where previously news was only available via the network news shows, you now can get it anywhere — for free. Similarly, the data and other info that trade associations used to compile and sell can be obtained from countless sources, often at no cost.
Like every other business, and every lawyer and his/her practice, bar associations must reinvent themselves to be more relevant, useful, accessible, valuable and desirable to members who no longer will renew on auto-pilot. Otherwise, they risk irrelevance and, eventually, obsolescence.
As you'll see if you visit it, the LinkedIn conversation has evolved to that of division-of-labor, a concept that's long been standard in every other industry, yet remains out of the reach of lawyers long accustomed to working as guild craftsmen.
Ironically, embracing greater division of labor, i.e., having salespeople do the selling (in partnership with topic-expert lawyers, a la the enterprise software business), would allow lawyers to do more of what they want to do, which is practice law. As long as lawyers cling to the outdated notion that they should do five jobs -- get the client, do the work, keep the client, run the firm, and develop inventory (young lawyers) -- each of which requires a different skill/experience set, they'll struggle unnecessarily.