I write to you from magnificent Chicago, on the first day of the ABA Annual Meeting. Just arrived here this afternoon, grabbed my badge and the program, and found about half a dozen interesting MCLE programs on topics I know very little about. I am most interested to hear from John Ashcroft tomorrow on "Lessons from History: A Conversation with Former Attorneys General." We shall see who has learned a lesson.
Despite the fact that thousands of lawyers have descended on Chicago, it is apparent to most that ABA membership is declining. I don't know whether the ABA will survive the economic turmoil and the new paradigms in information technology that are changing the way lawyers get and give information. What I do know is what membership in local, state, and national bar associations has meant to me. Here's my perspective, just so you know.
Very early in my career, I joined a local group, San Francisco Women Tax Lawyers, which was sort of a misnomer because it wasn't exclusively women, or lawyers, although the lunch gatherings did focus on tax topics. It's defunct now, but for about 15 years it was the only game in town for young women tax lawyers and many accountants as well. The other local group of tax lawyers wouldn't admit members who hadn't been in practice for at least 10 years—this policy was described to me back in the early 1990's as an intent to keep the conversations at a high level (which was pretty silly, their programs were no more high level than ours). It seemed obvious to me even then that the point was to exclude newcomers and to protect an old boys' network. The fact that it was almost exclusively a white male only group didn't seem to dawn on the leadership at the time. That group is now nearly defunct too, I think.
In any event, after spending several years as a board member of the Women Tax Lawyers, I moved to the statewide exempt organizations committee of the tax section of the California State Bar. That group was, and is still, a vibrant community of really committed lawyers, who share in writing the California treatise on nonprofit corporations, educating other lawyers as well as the legislators in Sacramento, and doing all sorts of appropriate but generally thankless tasks to improve the law in California. The California State Bar Tax Section's committees have always welcomed new members, have well established avenues for movement into leadership, is respected in the state and at the national level for its contributions to Congress and the IRS, and provides real value to its members. Membership is basically free, meeting fees are very low, and the cost of a plane ticket to the other end of California now and then is pretty modest.
After moving up the ranks in the statewide committee and serving as its Chair, I then moved on to the ABA Business Law Section, nonprofit corporations (now called nonprofit organizations) committee, worked my way up the committee structure, and then served as its chair. That particular ABA subcommittee, and the Business Law Section in general, seems to welcome new energy and provides real avenues for members to contribute to publications, webcasts, and speaking engagements. But it, too, has its challenges. It's part of an enormous business enterprise that seems to be struggling to attract new members. It is expensive to participate, because the two meetings each year are usually far from home and costly to get to, and the dues and meeting fees are very pricey.
In looking through this admittedly very narrow lens, one might be tempted to conclude that the very local topical bar associations are dying out because they lack a critical mass, that statewide networks (at least in California) have a critical mass and can continue to thrive, but that national bar associations will continue their decline because they are too massive, too expensive, and aren't nimble enough to change as necessary to meet tough economic times and changing information technologies.
Over the next few days, I'll blog my thoughts and perhaps Tweet them as well, and let you know how things look here on the ground. In the meantime, if anyone out there has the same or a different perspective, please comment!