The ABA: Friend, Foe or…Simply Irrelevant for the Solo?

Wow.  I go away for a vacation and all hell breaks loose! (only kidding) But during my vacation week when my big and little guys were asleep after an exhausting day at the beach I learned of Carolyn Elefant’s post on letting loose on the ABA as an ‘organization’ (not it’s volunteers or staff).  While we chatted via e-mail privately, it might have struck you oddly that I was quiet on the subject.  Well, I was quiet because I was on vacation, not because I don’t have an opinion.  My professional life’s mission is based upon a very defined opinion about lack of support for solos in the legal profession, the greatest offender historically being the ABA :-)

Out of the corner of my eye, I’ve watched the ABA decide the solo was its new favored child, especially when they saw their coffers dwindle after Big Law’s implosion.  I wrote about that here. (And DO read the comments.  They are very interesting). I then read Carolyn’s post going head-to-head with every supposedly new ABA initiative for the solo.

I totally agree with her. It’s simply repackaging with a slightly lower price tag.  As before, some of their efforts are good, but the majority is not…at least for the solo.

But I have to acknowledge I am more amused then offended by the ABA’s  blatant repackaging of their existing CLE programs (which are nothing like Solo Practice University ) and newsletters yet calling it the SmartSolo School as if somehow by imitating the name they will convince others it is like Solo Practice University.  What made me smile even more broadly (actually, I laughed out loud) was they even ‘copied’ Solo Practice University’s color scheme. Of all the colors on the color wheel…. :-)

But I thank Carolyn for calling it like she sees it:

Smart Soloing School, a series of free web-based CLE programs for solo practitioners (The ABA claims that this 3 day virtual program has a sticker price of $1620, but it’s free to solos who are ABA members.)  But what’s worse about this program than the inflated cost is the concept of soloing school , which is a shameless and unattributed knock-off of Solo Practice University.  Considering that SPU’s founder, Susan Cartier Liebel was in fact, an ABA Legal Rebel, she deserves better.;

I fully appreciate Carolyn’s upset because there are a number of professionals outside the ABA umbrella who have championed the solos when it wasn’t fashionable or profitable or even appreciated.  She and I just happen to be most visible at this particular time. And the lack of generosity in acknowledging those who have been doing so and doing so in a way which resonates with solos,  is sadly typical.  There can be more than one resource for solos.  Each compliments the other and in the collective provides a vast resource for solos. And FYI, Solo Practice University offers more than 400 classes online and nearly 300 more Free CLE approved classes through and at half the cost of SmartSolo School!

I’ve also had a series of more outraged e-mails and Twitter DM’s from those who’ve expressed their feelings less ‘kindly’ than she, but the sentiment is the same.

Here’s one:

The ABA can bite me. They offer so little for solos it’s insulting to charge for membership.

Another blog post which went off on the ABA (which I also spotted while on vacation) was  from this new solo:

Smart Soloing School. The ABA is so tired and out of ideas, that they have decided to blatantly rip-off one of their own nominated Legal Rebels, Susan Cartier Liebel, who runs Solo Practice University. The ABA claims their “school” is a $1600 value. Well, guess what? SPU costs a fraction of that, and provides excellent, on-going content and community. Why does the ABA need to re-invent the wheel? So they can focus even more on content I don’t need from them because it’s already being provided by someone else who is doing it well?

Thanks, Dave.

If there are lawyers who find value in the ABA, they don’t need to defend their decision to belong.  It’s a free country full of choice thanks to the energies of a lot of people wanting to help solos. If the ABA is providing value and continues to do so, this will be evidenced by an upswing in membership.  If the upswing comes from solos, then the ABA is providing the value these solos seek for the money they are charging.  It’s a numbers game. Period. Very easy to measure.

My recommendation, however, remains this.  You alone have to determine how you are going to spend your resources which includes both your time and money.  Ask yourself what real help you are getting to build your practice for each and every hard-earned dollar you spend.

From those I’ve talked to, the best dollars spent have been on relevant education, community and hyperlocalized professional associations.

We all know much of the basic practice-building information is free on the internet.   Numerous quality sites provide great information. Others pick it up, recycle  and regurgitate and then it gets picked up by another source and the cycle continues. All this is done in the form of free blog posts, ‘exclusive’ newsletters (sarcasm), magazine articles.  Sort through everything.  Look for what is truly different, proven and recommended.  Be judicious with each dollar. You just have to follow those who ‘speak’ to you in the voice and language which resonates with you.  If I were building my practice today, that’s exactly what I would be doing.  Oh, and for those who think my opinion holds some weight for them… my hard-earned solo dollars wouldn’t be spent on a membership to the ABA, even at a discount, not at this time. The value just isn’t there for me.

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13 comments on “The ABA: Friend, Foe or…Simply Irrelevant for the Solo?

  • Organizations behave differently than individuals. An organization may be staffed by wonderful, delightful, high-minded and able persons (plus or minus a certain amount of duds) but be organized in such a way as to work badly in practice … think of a group of NBA All-Stars trying to play baseball.

    The ABA, and many other organizations of lawyers, seem to act this way: nice people perhaps, organized for another century. I could rant for an hour about trying to accomplish something – anything! – on a state bar pro bono/legal aid committee, but from your post I suspect your grasp of the general problem is exceedingly strong.

    Since you mentioned something about service to the profession, let me take the liberty of pointing to a free CLE program agregator that may be helpful to anyone in private practice Please feel free to post there any free continuing legal ed you come across.

  • Now, I am involved in the ABA in a minor (very minor . . . ) leadership position, but I think your point (and Carolyn’s) is quite valid. The ABA can provide value, but the value lies 1) mostly in the network of people who belong to the organization and 2) almost entirely in the substantive sections (such as Health Law, where I will be involved in section leadership as the “young lawyer division” liaison – this is the place where Susan picks herself up off the floor after laughing about using the word “young lawyer” and me in the same sentence). There is value to me because I have a national network of attorney’s actively involved in healthcare law with whom I am familiar and are familiar with me.

    But that said, I have made the point to the leadership that doing things like the discounted memberships is not the answer – value is driven by the substantive sections and smaller entities within the ABA, much like your comment regarding community and hyperlocal professional associations, the smaller entities can provide those opportunities, but they don’t seem to be the focus of ABA marketing.

    And they didn’t include me on any discussions about this SmartSolo School – I would have pointed out the fact they were reinventing the wheel and should really be talking with you, Susan, rather than competing against you. In fact, looking at the ABA website that you linked too, I was on a conference call regarding the packaging of the initiative. And SmartSolo never came up that I recall – it was all about how to package the program. Several of the folks from the substantive sections made comments regarding how the value is driven by the sections, but that discussion was squelched and the call was merely about how to package the program – how out of touch.

  • Marc, your comment reminds me of the Big Law model. They think the answer is to simply offer some type of alternative pricing to those who complain about the billable hour not understanding ‘value pricing’ is a philosophy which permeates the very structure of the law firm. It is a philosophy upon which the firm moves forward and they develop a different partnership with their clients.

    This ‘repackaging’ is the same thing. There is nothing new being offered, just a repackaging of the same stuff with a lower price tag and a ‘portal.’ They aren’t hearing those who are speaking even when they are people like yourself who actively participate with the goal of helping.

    You can lead a horse to water….

  • I am, and have been for many years, a solo practitioner in a small town in a rural state. I have not been a member of the ABA for at least ten years. The vast majority of the information that was available to me as a member within my price range was written on the level of a “People” magazine for lawyers. I never felt that the policies of the ABA were of particular relevance to me, and too much of the ABA’s work felt alot like that of a fraternity.
    I tell my clients, those very few who ask, that I do not belong to the ABA for the same reason that I do not have a $ 1500 desk: that is not the law I practice, but if they want to pay excessive fees for the fancy furniture and the lawyer with the big car, I know where to send them.

    • Caitlin, thanks for visiting and sharing your perspective. Although many won’t actually admit it publicly as you did, your sentiment is shared by so many. I know so few lawyers who actually belong to the ABA. Usually, if they do it is (or was) part of the Big Law setting where the fees were picked up by the firm. It’s not the price, its the attitude and the value. Again, it is not to say that over time they can’t prove their value and restructure and provide things truly relevant to the solo, but that time is not now and certainly not the way they are going about it as evidenced by their ‘announcements’. And as more time passes and independent lawyers and other organizations zoom ahead with the use of technology to share information and create relevant environments that speak to the needs of the solo, it will become harder and harder for the ABA to do so in any meaningful way because right now they still don’t get it…not when it comes to solos.

  • I agree with many of the comments above. However, I still think it’s important that the voice of the solo and our unique perspectives on the practice of law are kept alive in the different sections ABA. I’m an active member in the ABA’s eLawyering Task Force which has done educational outreach sessions where most of our audience are solos or small firms. I have also provided information to the Ethics 20/20 Commission on cloud computing and virtual law practice. I appreciated this opportunity and did feel like those within the ABA receiving the information were receptive and were making an effort to understand the differences in concerns that solos have from BigLaw which they are more used to dealing with.

    I do think that they are aware that the membership of the bar is changing significantly and will continue to do so dramatically as the baby boomer generation of attorneys slowly begins to retire. Sure, they are concerned for the bottom line just like any organization would be, but I’ll choose to see these new changes as a positive acknowledgment and baby steps in the right direction. Because the ABA does have influence on state bars, internationally and even over the public’s perception of our profession, I think that it can’t hurt to continue to make sure that the needs of the solo practitioner are represented within the ABA – especially as they look at proposing regulations on cloud computing that could affect our practices or influence our state bars into taking similar action. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Without the participation of other solos, it won’t get very far.

    • Stephanie,

      As always you raise good points. And thank you for the great work you have done on the task force (and SPU as faculty!) educating those on cloud-computing and virtual office technology. These two are becoming increasingly critical when a lawyer considers going solo or staying solo because it keeps them cost-effective and highly competitive.

      And, as others have commented, it is the sections, whether geographically highly localized or practice area ‘localized’ which present the greatest perceived value. This is the greatest request. But there is much, much work to be done. And as many have pointed out, solos don’t have the luxury of the work and time commitment it takes to participate in the ABA fully while they struggle to build and maintain their solo practices/livelihoods. When you work for a firm that cuts you a check and supports your time and efforts for association involvement it’s very different. But then, again, that person does not necessarily have the solo’s needs at heart nor reasonably understands the solos needs. So, the pendulum naturally swings in favor of the greatest representation, larger firms. It’s a vicious cycle :-)

      However, this is nothing new! The ABA has always focused primarily on larger firms and Big Law needs even when times were flush in the legal profession and solos still needed services. So, I’m clearly more skeptical than you and with good reason. I’ve always believed you ‘follow the money’ and as the ABA follows the ‘loss of money through loss of membership’ they are looking to the solos to stop the bleeding.

  • It seems as though ABA-type organizations are around every corner. Many of them, when asked about the value for the common person, tout their ability to lobby. I’d love to know the actual value (and cost) of lobbying. While they may fund other programs, they mostly appear to be window dressing. I’d rather give my dollars to the fine folks running programs in this blog instead of an impersonal, multifaceted, national organization. Consider organizations that presented themselves to me in the past:

    ABA: I’m a solo criminal defense attorney focused on defending servicemembers in our armed forces (I took Chuck Newton seriously when he said to niche my practice). The court system I operate under is very streamlined, very transparent, and very easy to research. So, I’m not seeing it. Although, I did have a client accuse me of not being a licensed attorney because I am not a member of the ABA.

    AUSA: The Association of the US Army. Again, they tout their lobbying, but benefits for servicemembers have never been higher, largely because of the folks working at the Pentagon, not lobbyists from AUSA. Again, I’ll pass.

    Alumni Organizations. You know, I’m not even going to touch this one.

    I could go on and on.

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