Jordan Furlong gave a presentation to the National Association of Bar Executives at their national meeting last week at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Dallas. Although the theme was what does the future hold for bar associations, the presentation was provocative, and the themes were applicable to many aspects of the legal profession beyond bar associations.
He identified five assumptions of yesterday that must yield to the new realities of today:
1. Competition: The old assumption was that lawyers have no real competition; they are a self-regulated profession that also regulates the market. Now, it is uncomfortably clear that lawyers are only one of several legal providers, including paraprofessionals, out-sourced lawyers, and “do-it-yourselfers” who find the legal answers they need off internet searches.
2. Networks: The old assumption was that lawyers have few networking opportunities and the raison d’etre of bar associations was to provide lawyers collegiality and connectivity with other lawyers, the only reliable source we had for the exchange of information and ideas. The new reality is that lawyers have a myriad of opportunities to connect, including global law firm networks, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. He argued that a LinkedIn group is a bar association.
3. Education: The traditional assumption has been that lawyers want continuing legal education as legal updates of black letter law in traditional lecture format. The new reality is that the nature of work attorneys are retained to do is radically changing and lawyers crave practical skills for new jobs and opportunities. Because more attorneys will be running their own practices, process-heavy and systems driven training is needed.
4. Large firms: The old assumption has been the large firms support the bar associations. (I recall that when I was a young associate, my law firm and most of the larger firms paid the bar association dues for the American, state, and local bar association memberships for all attorneys in the firm.) The new reality is large law firms have their own problems and with falling profitability and intense pricing pressure, bar association memberships have become a luxury.
5. Lawyer supply: The old assumption is that there would always be more attorneys. The new reality is that there is a shrinking legal profession. We are all reading about the plummeting number of applicants to law schools over the past two to three years and the increasing use of out-sourcing, meaning (among many other things) fewer lawyers to pay bar association dues.
For anyone paying attention to trends in the profession, most of this pitch about assumptions vs. realities was a familiar downer. However, Mr. Furlong had a few recommendations about how bar associations can evolve and thrive going forward. Two of his points in particular struck a chord with me: inspiration and education.
Furlong noted that what drives many people to the practice of law is the sense that law has meaning, is critically important to many aspects of our society and is a noble profession. They look to inspire and be inspired. I agree with him that many lawyers love being lawyers and look for organizations that reflect these values. Those organizations should provide thought leadership, research and development, professional forums to explore and opportunities to perform meaningful justice activities, including public interest advocacy and pro bono publico.
Furlong also said we are “post-CLE.” He went on to explain that pragmatic skills and business training both online and in-person is sorely needed. He suggested that bar associations could fill this need. They should study what kinds of skills and core competencies are needed to equip lawyers to practice effectively in the contemporary world and then deliver those to lawyers, thereby revitalizing their worth and value to their members and their clients. Words of wisdom for all of us to consider…