When I graduated law school I never joined the ABA. It didn’t offer the new solo trying to get started anything of significant value for its dues. Sixteen years later it still doesn’t for the majority. But as of August, 2010 they are going to lower the annual dues because they are in trouble. Big Law is no longer its darling they can rely upon through thick and thin and their membership ranks are thinning. As their members leave, their coffers dwindle. Wake up, Alice. Reducing dues and hiring a consultant to fix the problem is just not the answer. Can you say, ‘Legally Minded?’
Solos have been the majority of private practitioners in this country forever. But since they were independent, less political as a group, didn’t have a ‘leader’ and too hard to herd one by one, they were left to their druthers. And they swelled in ranks. But it didn’t matter. The ABA’s focus was other-directed. Law school accreditation, building political capital and some actually valuable things that had no real meaning for the solo. But they missed the boat on one very important stated mission – to help the profession as a whole. And the profession as a whole (the majority) are solos and small firms.
More than a decade ago Bruce Dorner started a small ‘chat’ group through the then new technology known as a listserv. This listserv grew to more than 3500 and it is called Solosez. Eventually, the ABA took it under its wing to offer….well, I’m not really sure what it was offering them. Do you? But I’m sure the ABA hoped to profit from it. Stories abound how they pulled the meager salary the administrator received because somehow ‘they should want to volunteer their time.’ They never looked at this list and thought, ‘if the need is so great for solos to have community we should find a way to enhance this experience for those in our profession who use it.’ No, they were (and still are) a step-child wearing hand-me down technology and given pennies to sustain themselves.
There is a joke I heard recently from a small law firm who stopped renewing their ABA membership. The lawyer I spoke to said, “We get 13 things for our ABA dues – 12 nice magazines and a bill. Those are very expensive magazines.’ This is from someone who bought in to the idea, ‘graduate law school and join the ABA.’ No longer are students mindlessly joining an organization because it exists. Somewhere along the way any perception of value disappeared.
Therefore, dropping dues on something which has no perceived value for the solo will not magically make it have value even at half price. Hiring a consultant to tout value through slick advertising won’t make value magically appear where there is none. The solo lawyer today doesn’t need the ABA as it currently exists.
So, how is the ABA going to fix this problem? It’s not with a sale price and a pretty pink dress.
They have to actually understand what the solo NEEDS and then provide it at a reasonable cost reflective of the solo’s economic status and struggles. Can they do that?
Years ago, Jay Foonberg came out with his seminal book on starting a solo practice. Has any other book turned out by the ABA sold as many copies? Didn’t they get a clue then?
The ABA had it all. And they squandered their clout with politics, greed, ignorance and disregard of solo practitioners as a group. Countless individuals within the organization itself are well-intended and care deeply, are excellent lawyers and really great people with the best interests of the profession and those they service in mind. But the American Bar Association as a professional collective has blown it big time.
Don’t spend your money on an overpriced out-of-touch consultant. Send Carolyn Elefant and myself an airline ticket. We’ll negotiate a more reasonable consulting fee and start moving you in the right direction….if you really mean it when you say you want to change things.
29 comments on “Why Reducing Fees and Putting on A Pretty Pink Dress Won't Bring Solos Back to the ABA”
In discussing Solosez, you say “[t]hey never looked at this list and thought, ‘if the need is so great for solos to have community we should find a way to enhance this experience for those in our profession who use it.’ No, they were (and still are) a step-child wearing hand-me down technology and given pennies to sustain themselves.”
While I agree that the way the GP|Solo Division (not, the ABA as a whole, as I understand) created a debacle by the way they handled the issue of the list manager’s salary, I don’t agree with your assertion that the ABA shows its disregard for solos by limiting us to the “hand-me-down” technology of a listserv.
I’ve been on Solosez for nine years. The issue of the “form” of Solosez (should it be an e-mail list, a forum, etc.) comes up a number of times each year. Every time, the majority of list members who chime in on the topic (including the most of the long-term, active participants) are in favor of retaining the current format. Moreover, other segments of the ABA also use the e-mail list format, as do many state and local bar associations.
Perhaps if the ABA’s Legally Minded hadn’t been such a failure as a social networking platform, we would all have migrated over to there. But, in the meantime, Solosez itself ain’t broke, so there’s no reason to fix it.
Lisa, I’m not denegrating Solosez or its members by any stretch of the imagination. I’m talking about the ABA not regarding it and giving it the respect it deserves and the funds necessary to improve the experience for its users. They neither capitalize upon nor appreciate what is right under their own umbrella! The debacle with the list serv salary is a perfect example of step-child status. They want to increase solo membership but not only do they ignore what’s right under their nose, but actually take away from them. That’s lunacy and systemic!
I read your article with interest. I agree that the ABA doesn’t directly help the Solo. I left private practice in 1999 and started a new career in business.
However, law practice management is my passion. The LPM section has good information that Solos can use and has many books directed at Solos. This section has a recognized group of Practice Management Advisors who are individuals employed by certain state bars to help all of their members with business issues. The only reason I am a member of the ABA is to participate in the LPM section.
If LPM doesn’t have value for you, please address what services you would like the ABA to offer to Solos. All bar associations are struggling with how best to meet its members needs. Any suggestions you have will be appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you.
Carol, thanks for visiting. I also see your background has been with the ABA LPM division for over nine years I’m not evading your question. But given your professional background from 2000-2009 as written on your LinkedIn profile, what I’d like to know is why do YOU believe membership is dwindling and why do YOU think solos are not joining the ABA and taking advantage of what you believe they are offering? As an insider in the LPM division for all these years, what is your insight?
It strikes me that the vitality of the ABA is in its sections. People should be able to join at least one for free with their membership. (Every so often they run promotions where this is the case, but it should be more normalized. Keeping people actively involved is key to providing them value, and key to the ABA’s overall survival.)
I agree with you, Cathy. The hyperlocalized experience is key. But right now they are on a money drive. With only 29% of the profession as members, where are the other 71% going who need services the supposed representative body has failed to provide? They are creating their own experiences to satisfy their needs.
Susan, you are right on point. I belonged to the ABA for a few years when I first started practicing law. I also failed to see any value in membership and dropped it. I am reevaluating the value of several organizations (some legal, some not) in which I am a member and finding that many are failing the value test. As a result, I’d guess that the ABA is not the only professional organization seeing members leave for good.
Wow. I can feel the passion in your writing. I have my doubts about the value of ABA membership all the time. I can honestly say that there has been little ‘value-added’ by the ABA to my career thus far.
The ABA has definitely neglected Solos and tailored its services and resources to large firms. Additionally, it has refused to put pressure on law schools to reel in their admissions practices and stop the floodgates of underqualified, undertrained lawyers.
I think the ABA needs a culture change and I’m skeptical if that will ever happen. We’ll see.
I never joined the ABA or ATLA and do not regret it. I get tremendous value out of Colorado Trial Lawyer’s Association and little to no value out of the Denver Bar Association and the Colorado Bar Association (all I ever get from them is non-stop CLE fliers and emails)
Essentially, SPU is my national bar association and I get more out of it everyday than I ever could with the ABA. The more the ABA fails in its’ attempt to woo solos the better it is for you and for SPU.
I’m with Cathy on this. The reason I inertially retained my ABA membership for many years was to keep up with the publications produced by the sections (particularly the Litigation snd Antitrust Sections). Indeed, at $35-$50 a year, section membership–even for those who had little time for committee and national meetings–is a bargain. However, when I realized the extent to which ABA dues were a dead weight on my cash flow (particularly as I disagreed with much of its public policy advocacy and its use of its accreditation power to slow, if not suppress, innovation in legal education), I let my membership drop.
I have met many attorneys who hold and have held leadership positions in the ABA, its sections and committees, and respect them both for their ability and their service to “the profession”. I have also seen close-up the time burdens those who aspire to bar leadership (even on the state and city level) must incur at the expense of their practice and their business. Only those who A) have public service or academic employers willing to continue compensation while they serve at the national level B)have maintained extraordinarily successful small practices or C) work for Biglaw firms that have a resource base which permit them view service in senior bar positions to be sabbatical time for the lawyer and good publicity for the office can afford to devote such time to volunteer work. Few solos can. Should it be a surprise that many of us see our concerns being given short shrift at the national level when its leadership is almost inevitably drawn from a far smaller portion of the profession confronting different issues?
Like many of you (notwithstanding the high dues), I prefer to spend my time in work for my city (Boston) bar association, at which I can still do meaningful work where my name and face are known and committee business need not be transacted via conference call or quarterly out-of-town meetings. Long before I left, the ABA ceased to provide me with such a human touch or an approachable experience. If I could find a way to support the bar’s specialty publications (mostly staffed by remarkable volunteers) without paying dues to ABA HQ, I would do so. Reducing the cost of membership to “only” $4.25 per week won’t be enough to get me back.
I am an attorney in a two attorney firm. The price of ABA membership is very expensive and I have to agree that you do not get a whole lot of value from that membership with one exception. The Section membership is great. If I could be a member of a section or two without paying the ABA dues I would be much happier.
You make an excellent point Susan. Attorneys starting a solo practice need to prioritize their spending and look for the most bang for their bucks. If the ABA doesn’t offer substantial benefits for the dues, solos are better off with social media like Twitter and Facebook. SPU fills a great need for professional networking and education. I would consider the ABA the General Motors of the legal profession and right now, I’m driving a Honda.
Susan, These are excellent points. ABA membership failed the value test for me many years ago. As membership fees increased over time, value didn’t increase. I quote from a course I took at your SPU: your interview with Bob Berg:
“Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment.”
Yes, ‘your true worth IS determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment.’ Bob Burg knows his stuff
As you might suspect Susan, I disagree. Not necessarily with your premise mind you — if there are those that feel that they haven’t gotten value out of the ABA, then it is the ABA that has failed in getting its value across and reaching out to those members.
Will it bring you lots of business? Probably not. But that has never been the value proposition of the ABA. It is the information that people can get, the relationships you can build, and benefit of being involved with changes to the profession. It is far from perfect, but as an involved member, I know that there are thousands of people who are trying to help others through their bar work.
You seem to subscribe to the notion that it is “too late” for the ABA to change. But why is that so? Organizations are no more than collections of people and there are many well-meaning people in the ABA who strive to make the profession a better place. The dues decrease is simply one part of the ABA’s efforts to reach out to a collection of people who have not felt that the ABA was a place for them. You dismiss it as mere lipstick, but as a member of the House of Delegates that voted for the decrease, I know that it was just part of a much larger plan that the ABA is working on to bring people back.
Instead of lobbing grenades from the outside, how about this challenge: Join the ABA. As a House of Delegates member, I will give you a FREE membership in the ABA for the rest of the bar year (offer ends 2/14/10). Get involved with the ABA and try voicing your criticisms and suggestions internally where you can be involved in changing the organization. And then see what you think after 6 months. Maybe it’s the same organization you remember. But maybe it isn’t. And isn’t that worth trying?
“Countless individuals within the organization itself are well-intended and care deeply, are excellent lawyers and really great people with the best interests of the profession and those they service in mind.”
Dan, as I stated in the post, I recognize the efforts of the individuals and said as much. However, the ABA as an organization is TOO much of a political machine for me, and apparently for many others. While I appreciate your offer, it is not a place I personally can do my best work advocating for change for the solo any more than practicing law in a Big Law firm would be the best environment for me to represent clients effectively. It would be a very bad fit. I have to effectuate change in a way that matches my personality and that would be Solo Practice University.
I’ll also don’t recall where I stated the ABA can’t change. I am saying that they have a big mountain to climb because sadly they’re starting point is below sea level when it comes to solos. The way they have gone about working with solos historically, foreshadows the future for many. This skepticism is well-earned. I, as others, would love to be surprised, though. And I promise, if the change is real and proves truly valuable to the solo, I’ll be the first to announce it. But the word of this transformation will have to come from the solos who are beneficiaries of the changes, not the change agents.
And to butcher an old axiom – those who question and challenge the loudest are the ones who truly want to be converted the most. Please convert me
Fair points. I think I had read too much into the Legal Blog Watch post summarizing your post.
But I think skeptics like you are the ones the ABA needs to figure out. Just don’t set the bar impossibly high. The policy-making side of the ABA is but a small piece of the ABA’s big tent. There’s probably something you’d enjoy doing with it; the ABA just needs to help you find it.
The ABA does provide solos with valuable discounts and networking opportunities at places like the Virgin Islands and Disneyworld, robust diversity programs, an opportunity to rise to positions of importance, pro bono and public service opportunities to help others in Haiti, outsourcing to law firms in India and emissaries to Africa and Middle East.
Susan is absolutely right. I have belonged to the ABA since my first year in law school, 1966. However, because I have rarely if ever been able to afford either the time or the money to attend the twice yearly meetings I have what the Americans fought a war for “Taxation without Representation.” From 1981 to January 2009 I served as a U.S. Administrative Law Judge and therefore my dues were relatively low (without my section memberships). However upon my retirement in January of 2009, when my income was cut in half (my federal pension is approximately half my highest three years salary) my dues went up to the highest level. Along with section memberships in the health law section, administrative law section and Judicial Division, I could no longer afford membership. After e-mails to Carolyn Lamm, and friends who have served on the board of the JD, I learned about a reduced dues program, and had to plead for a reduction while I attempted to get my solo practice off the ground.
Of course, the ABA never hesitates to give huge discounts for programs and other things to large firms who purchase multiple registrations or copies, while we solos pay the highest prices.
Yes, it is an elitest organization. So why do I continue to belong? The answer is simple. It is still the cheapest way to get good current information about changes in the law in my field. The almost daily posts from the health law section provide me with essential information and links that are provided are invaluable.
I think it’s great that our legal profession has such a wide variety of professional associations available to us to choose from. At present, I find my state’s voluntary bar association (the Illinois State Bar Association) to meet my needs more effectively than the ABA does. I don’t think one size needs to fit all.
No offense to Carol, but if the ABA LPM section has so much information on solo and small firm practice, why does my blog, MyShingle receive at least 50-100 hits a day directly from the ABA’s GP Solo site? And why are those referred sources spending upwards of 30-40 minutes on my site, reviewing all the resources and posts? I am happy to share the log rolls privately.
I think the ABA has a place that is good and beneficial.
I joined the ABA and some sections when admitted in 1964, and was active as State Reporter etc. in one after I went solo a few years later. I dropped out because of cost and limited benefit but triggered by articles and political positions, having little or nothing to do with law or legal expertise, which I found abhorrent, such as articles advocating encouraging prisoners to commit suicide, brainwashing, etc. and endorsement of abortion and the like.
I retained my active membership and remained active in the Dallas Bar Association, at some cost which discouraged some solo practictioners I urged to join, because, for one thing, many of the extensive and well-done Friday lunch and section CLE programs and handouts from these proved to be of great value.
Legal ethics has always been an interest of mine and I served three active terms, one as subcommittee chair, on the Dallas Bar Association’s Committee on Advisory Legal Ethics Opinions. The ABA got one opinion I, coincidentally with others, requested, right, in detail, while the State Bar’s curt contrary response interpreting identical language was not only wrong but based upon a long-repealed rule. However, I have lost track of the number of times the ABA Committee has flip-flopped on one issue and overlooked the practical realities of family law on others. Their formal opinion that a lawyer had to return a file or document inadvertantly exposed to the other side but was free to copy and use the contents, and a similar one on using metadata and recovered erased language on a document provided in electronic form, etc., were contrary to what the nationally recognized expert from whom I took legal ethics told, us and appalled me.
The ABA or some of its sections and groups did later get actively into some issues which had, more or less unexpectedly, become of great personal and professional interest to me, take some technical positions, on areas of expertise, that I supported, and do some good work, such that, if I were currently on active status and making enough money, I would like to re-join. The main organization never did formally adopt and et behind some of these, however.
There arguably should be a national organization of and for the legal profession as a whole, but none currently exists, given the percentage of the profession who are not ABA members. I’m not sure trying to create or re-create such an organization is feasible, practical, or, given the tendencies of most large organizations, even particularly desirable either to the average lawyer or as a matter of public policy and interest.
I graduated in the upper third of my class at a top-20 law school. The ABA, and too many others, seem to believe all lawyers start at $160,000.00 plus, represent clients for whom cost is no object, and hold certain monolithic social, political, and jurisprudential values and views somewhat inconsistent with those typical of others of similar financial standing. The then U. S. Attorney in Dallas was quoted saying any lawyer who reported less than a fraction of the starting salary at “BigLaw” was a liar, a tax evader, and an incompetent lawyer, in the same issue of Texas Lawyer where the state advertised for lawyers at a starting salary below his cut-off point. I know a lot of good lawyers making too little money, and the brutally simple fact, confirmed by a nationally known expert who speaks at ABA and State Bar classes on this subject, is that the real incomes of existing and new lawyers, like a lot of other people with and without degrees, i.e., clients and would-be clients, have not kept up but fallen over the last generation.
A lot of the lawyers I have discussed this with over the years, and a higher percentage of the younger ones, have told me that they wee not happy about what they were doing. This is a separate and different issue from the income problem. Given what a lot of the better-paid younger and many other lawyers at “BigLaw” are actually doing, the 37% who have reported that they were dissatisfied and unhappy about their work there, years before the current squeeze, is hardly surprising.
Part of this problem was explained by the Dean of the SMU Law School when he told the Dallas Bar, a generation ago, that “Lawyers are doing lower and lower level tasks.” Despite, or maybe because of, modern word processors, computer research, etc., the secretarial and paralegal work in many matters, from commercial real estate to family law, has not been reduced but has mushroomed in volume and cost.
Part is that the average individual or small-business client can’t afford the out of pocket expenses, much less the many more hours of legal work, they need, becuse the income of the average client, with or without one or more college degrees, has failed to keep up much less grow as fast as the expenses and work involved in most legal matters. Unfortunately, I hardly see any organization of lawyers being able to do anything about reversing such negative trends in the U. S. economy that, contrary to the protestations of the politicians of both parties, have been developing for the past thirty years.
Any voluntary organization that hopes to attract and speak for most of the legal profession should get out of the business of taking political positions on
abortion, except maybe to figure out some way to take that out of its primary role in Supreme Court and other judicial confirmation proceedings, and on political questions generally. What makes a lawyer, much less a group of diverse lawyers, any more competent than anyone else to decide issues like that which are essentially maters of religion [in which one must include atheism which rests upon a leap of faith as much as any other], values, and personal preferences.
In the realm of legal expertise where, at first, one might expect a broad-based organization of lawyers to be in a position to offer specially informed advice to its members, to government, and to the voters, you would quickly run up against the modern and curent division between those who believe that the Constitution should have meaning as adopted and amended and those who either don’t or believe it should be rewritten by the courts and Congress to fit their present personal preferences. Both views do offer ways for the Supreme Court to take new conditions and knowledge into account,
but, as the Framers and Founders, including both the Federalists and the Antifederalists who opposed the Constitution’s ratification noted, there is no common ground upon which these two conflicting views could ever be reconciled or accommodated, although there are some, perhaps many, cases in which Justices holding to either theory and applying different rationales can and should arrive at the same result anyway.
The party that leans toward my views on Constitutional interpretation more of the time somehow leans sharply contrary to my views, formed after having practiced in both plaintiffs’ and insurance defense firms, about which commits the most and many of the worst abuses and which way the system has become biased, and too many of its leaders’ attacks upon all “[plaintiffs'] trial lawyers,” as though that were any more fair or rational than any other prejudice. I understand some of the pressures in the U.S. to stay on one side of a docket, though it is not that way in U.S. JAG or British practice, but lawyers [and even lay prospective jurors, witnesses, etc.], or groupsof them, who tell me that all plaintiffs or all defendants are either right or evil have always struck me as blinded or intellectually dishonest. The other side of that problem was typified when the large defensefirms essentially took over the Consumer Law sections of some bars and bar associations, for example.
I’ve been a litigant, on both sides of the docket, and thus a client, which was an extremely frustrating experience even when I won. It is no wonder the lay citizens have so little confidence in the honesty and integrity either of lawyers as a group or of the legal or political system.
Any group that hopes to encompass a large majority of the diverse modern legal profession would necessarily do most of its real work in and through smaller, more or less specialized, sections and committees. Since the organization exists, or should exist, to serve its, or diverse groups of its, members, rather than the members existing to support it, it might well be that member loyalty should run primarily to these smaller constituent entities. Perhaps we would end up with a loose federation of sections, committees, bars, etc., and far lower dues to the umbrella group.
What interests do “lawyers” as a group, or “the profession,” tend to have in common, which are more or less distinct from those of others, that would bring them together in any such organization, which are not better served by other organizations built upon different bases?
When I was on the Dallas Bar’s Professional Economics Committee back when the bar was smaller and more collegial, firms tended to “swarm” at about 25 lawyers, and nobody had ever dreamed of a 2,500 lawyer firm, we discovered how little most lawyers knew about what others in their own building actually did, who was really good in fields of law we didn’t know much about, who could be trusted and everyone at the table knew who I meant when I referred to the Law Firm of Lie & Renege, which I am afraid would have been a lot harder to pin down now that several leading lawyers, including one now holding high judicial office, have told me that they had been ethically bound to lie in the course of cases or when given as a reference by someone they knew was an accomplished con artist, forger and thief.
Shakespeare notwithstanding, good lawyers, even in small towns out here, do lack paying clients, while some who are not trustworthy do not, and, years after retirement, I still get asked who is good at things. Too often, it is impossible for a would-be client to find anyone willing to take on a difficult but valid case either or without the aid of an attorney in the search process.
When I called the State Bar’s Lawyer Referral Service trying to find legal counsel in a matter of mine in which, if it were honest or cared about lawyers, should have been interested, and told them I was broke, they hung up on me. The State Bar’s Committee on Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Cases, who also have a nice fat budget funded by compulsory dues, never responded. One person working with an entity there with a tangential connection to the issue did express interest and offer to try to find me some legal help but could not.
In my experience, which, at one time many years ago, included being consulted by, and serving, in “Jack Spratt” relationships, as a kind of back office and of counsel to, a number of more traditional solo and small firm lawyers, many solo and small firm lawyers had unique strengths and niche practices that were not always readily known to newly admitted job applicants or potential clients, especially in the days of anti-advertising, minimum fee, and other anticompetitive rules. Such relationships and transactions were affirmatively recommended in articles by experts in the official Texas Bar Journal, etc., and covered in general terms in their and my contracts with clients. More recent Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct and official opinions would complicate and restrict such relationships, to the detriment of clients of solo and small firm lawyers, as well as the lawyers themselves. I think some of this rule language may have been aimed at “offshoring” of legal work, but, since I would presume that would have to be and have been covered in detail in the retainer contracts of the big firms doing it, and, given the presumption that, like others, lawyers who write laws and rules know and intend the natural and probable results of their actions, I have reason to and do believe that at least one reason for these changes was to further tilt the balance in favor of the big firms that mostly practice defense and creditors’ rights law, etc. for large enterprises.
Suppose that, instead of trying to repesent or speak for all lawyers in the U. S., this proposed new group went for the limited, targeted market of solo and small firm lawyers in private practice. These do have some common interests, as shown by the interest in Carolyn Elefant’s “My Shingle” and this blog, among others, and such sections of bars and bar associations. The question then arises what, if anything, a national group could and would do for a large number of them that would justify joining and supporting it. I’m not sure I know an answer to that upon which any valid model could or likely would be built.
I just called the ABA to renew because I heard about the dues decrease for solos. I know the program wasn’t supposed to start until May, but I had heard they were offering price reductions if requested.
Well when I requested the 50% reduction, they refused, stating it wasn’t available until May or something like that. I’m done. I’m not going to renew.
There are some solos out there doing great, but as I sit here and type this I am struggling for clients, I answer my own phones, and I can’t afford a real office. Why should I pay nearly $200 a year for essentially a monthly magazine?
Melisa, the ABA aside, one suggestion is if you are mainly after traffic tickets and landlord/tenant cases, to promote that and not that you are a general practitioner. That does not keep you from taking other matters that come in the door or call. As a general rule, people do not hire lawyers as they seek to get problems resolved. Let them know the problems you solve upfront, or at least the primary ones you want to solve. Potential clients have to be able to identify you and they are likely to go first to the lawyer that markets for their problems.
Of course, I work from home and answer my own phone. I have been doing it since 1999 and I prefer it that way.
I agree with you on the dues. But, the issue is whether ABA offers you anything that can help you find clients, including meet and greet seminars, conferences, listservs or anything of the like.
Best to you.
The ABA is a terrible organization. Besides the ABA, I have never seen a trade organization that does not look out for the interest of their trade, uncontrolled growth of lawyers, law schools with low admission standards, competition from non-lawyers, emphasis on working for free.
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