Incoming American Bar Association President Carolyn Lamm was so concerned about shoring up the organization’s membership and appealing to a broader audience that she started pitching in this year before the beginning of her term.
ABA membership isn’t growing at the same rate as the profession, said Lamm, a partner in the Washington office of White & Case. The association doesn’t even represent half of all U.S. lawyers anymore, she said.
“There were certain groups of lawyers I didn’t think we had enough of,” said Lamm, citing solo practitioners, young lawyers and those from smaller firms. Different groups have “different needs in terms of what the association can give them to increase the value of the association and increase the relevance of the association to them.”
When the ABA gathers for its annual meeting in Chicago on July 30, the organization’s board of governors will weigh a key question: How does the association get membership climbing again? The board will receive a presentation from its marketing consultant Leo Burnett Co. Inc., which was hired in March to aid in spreading the ABA’s message to more lawyers. The association has never pursued a marketing effort of this magnitude, said current ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr.
DROP IN MEMBERSHIP
The association is tracking member revenue on a daily basis and so far expects a decline of between 2,000 and 4,000 members this year, Wells said in an interview. That’s down from 408,000 at the end of the last fiscal year on Aug. 31, 2008. Wells and ABA Executive Director Henry “Hank” White Jr. said they wouldn’t have an official member count until after this fiscal year ends.
As of the end of May, the ABA had lost 4,431 members from the same month in 2008, dropping membership by about 1.2 percent to 361,484 members, according to a report on the organization’s Web site, but White said that a slew of members will pay their dues late in the fiscal year, during the next few months. Although the association’s dues-paying members, who passed the bar at least a year ago, have increased by 10,753 from the past year, that gain was nearly erased by a 9,896 drop in new lawyers who passed the bar less than a year ago, according to the May report. In addition, the number of law student members decreased by 5,531.
“We’ve all been very concerned about the drop in the membership in the last few years,” said Kathleen Joan Hopkins, a Seattle attorney at the Real Property Law Group who sits on the board. It’s all part of an effort to help the organization “stay relevant,” she said.
The recession, expansion of law firms, rise in industry competition and controversy regarding the judicial review process have conspired to reduce membership in recent years, said lawyers who have worked with the association. Although the downturn in the economy is at least part of the reason for the decrease, “I’m not sure anyone knows exactly why that’s going on,” said Wells, who is a partner at Maynard, Cooper & Gale in Birmingham, Ala.
“In these economic times, one can expect that some lawyers — because they were laid off or for other reasons — will be rethinking their membership in bar associations generally,” said Patricia Refo, a partner at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix who is the ABA’s chair of the standing committee on membership.
Some members are dropping off as they leave large firms that had been paying their ABA dues, Hopkins said. Solo practitioners and lawyers at smaller firms may be passing up membership in the national organization in favor of keeping more local bar association memberships, said David Van Zandt, dean of the Northwestern University School of Law.
The association is “not as much the representative of the profession,” Van Zandt said. “It’s more difficult for them to be seen that way with diminished membership.”
The four goals of the organization are to serve its members; improve the profession; eliminate bias and enhance diversity; and advance the rule of law, according to the ABA Web site. In addition to committees of lawyers reporting on various legal topics, the ABA also accredits law schools and provides reviews of nominees for federal judgeships. The organization is led by a 555-member House of Delegates and represented publicly by the 37-member board of governors.