Law360 recently reported that layoffs have hit the American Bar Association (ABA) following years of declining membership rates, with approximately 4% of the ABA’s workforce expected to get a pink slip or accept a voluntary buyout within days. ABA membership has diminished nearly in half since the 70’s. At the same time, as membership has dwindled, some have observed that the Association’s dominant role in the selection of federal judges may also be waning with the change of political tides.
This begs the question of whether bar associations, not just the ABA, but state and local bars also, remain relevant to lawyers. Candidly, I’ve never been to an ABA convention and have only gone to a few practice area-specific conferences. I think I speak for the majority of my colleagues saying this. The common perception is that the ABA is relevant to the leadership of state and local bar associations, and perhaps to practitioners in selected national practices. Unfortunately for the ABA that only represents a tiny fraction of the overall bar.
I see parallels of what’s happening to the ABA in the state and local bar associations. I was proud to be an officer and director of my local bar association. Yet, even when the luncheons are well attended, probably no more than 10 to 20% of the membership attends. I would be surprised if two or three percent show up for the state bar convention.
The decline in position of bar associations obviously doesn’t mean the end of lawyers gathering together. Rather, it may simply reflect the evolution of the practice and technology. My perception is that specialty associations, such as those that serve the plaintiff or defense litigation bars, are doing fine. The focus on one side of the practice allows a freer exchange of information, i.e. talking “shop” in a way you could never do at the monthly local bar luncheon.
The state bars will also remain relevant as CLE providers and some practice area sections at the state level enjoy vibrant involvement. The move to specialization in the practice has spurred the advent of specialty bar associations.
With technological advances, lawyers have also opted to spend more time on listservs and in other virtual meeting places. While this may not have all the advantages of face-to-face contact, it’s probably the inevitable path forward in a social media dominated world.
Are bar associations dying? Certainly, some like the ABA are no longer thriving. However, practitioners are finding other ways to meet, learn and do business, sometimes through specialty bars in lieu of the “big bars.” Perhaps, we as lawyers simply don’t want to remain stagnant and will gravitate towards what serves our practices best.