Reinventing the Association
As we begin our landmark strategic planning process, the input of all members is needed
By Lee Smalley Edmon
Lee Smalley Edmon is president of the Association.
This President's Page was originally published in the January 1999 issue of Los Angeles Lawyer.
Two months ago in this column, I described the Association's work with the leadership of the Los Angeles Superior Court on the Superior Court Improvement Initiative. That project, we hope, will become one step in the direction of improving the court system to better serve the public. Of course, every institution, including the Los Angeles County Bar Association, can benefit from just this sort of self-evaluation. Over the past few months, the leadership of the Association, together with the staff, have been considering how to improve the ways we operate so that we can better meet the changing needs of our profession. This is just the beginning of a process that can only benefit from the involvement of each of you.
We began this effort ever mindful of the problems that the State Bar has experienced over the last year. The State Bar is a visible reminder of how important it is for all bar associations to listen to their members and make changes when changes need to be made. One of the reasons that the State Bar was not more effective in responding to Governor Wilson's veto of the dues bill was the almost total absence of support from the Bar's members. Despite the Board of Governors' repeated requests that members send letters of support to the legislature, there was virtual silence. A few state legislators have told me that the only people who bothered to write were those who applauded the governor's actions.
Although I would like to think that the staff and volunteer leaders of this Association have always believed (even without the State Bar experience as a guide) that providing better service to the lawyers of Los Angeles is their primary goal, you can bet that is our top priority now. We have formalized this effort into a strategic planning process. It is a term that most of you are familiar with from the business world, but it has for too long been absent from the world of nonprofit associations. It involves rethinking everything the Association does-from what information we request on our membership applications to what new projects the Association should undertake, or what old ones should be abandoned. In my view, one of the best things about this effort is that, perhaps for the first time, we are trying to include all the Association's members in the discussion. Here's what we have been doing and how you can weigh in:
Over the past year, the Association executive committee, as well as several focus groups of our members, have met to discuss ways in which the Association can add value to membership. Then, in November, the Board of Trustees participated in an all-day Saturday session devoted to strategic planning. We started by identifying the issues and trends facing lawyers in Los Angeles today. We then discussed how all those issues and trends have affected the practice of law and the Association. Finally, we considered how the Association can respond to those issues and trends to better meet the needs of the lawyers in Los Angeles or to advance the administration of justice.
To give one example, our discussion about the impact of technology on the profession went something like this:
- Technology is playing an ever larger role in the practice of law.
Potential Association Responses:
- The constant need to update technology requires a substantial investment of time and money.
- Technology can result in isolation; there is no "need" to leave the office.
- We have less free time and more stress as clients demand immediate response.
- Efficiencies have resulted in reduced law office staff, making it easier for small firm practitioners to compete.
The trustees also explored the impact of and potential Association responses to other developments, such as the aging of our society and our profession; the changing nature of the practice of law as it becomes more of a business than a profession, with a greater focus on the economic interests of the firm and increased billable-hour requirements; increased movement of attorneys among firms and the resulting insecurity and competition; increased demands from sophisticated clients; increased competition from nonlawyers; and the reluctance of young lawyers to join associations of any kind and the failure of many law firms to encourage them to do so.
- Offer computer training at Association headquarters.
- Provide advice on what hardware and software lawyers should acquire.
- Provide guidance for members on security and confidentiality issues.
- Offer continuing education and other resources online.
- Establish virtual mentor relationships through online chat rooms where senior lawyers can give advice to more junior lawyers.
- Offer advice on how to utilize computer hardware and software more fully.
- Ask for e-mail addresses on membership applications.
In this one day we only had enough time to begin the process of prioritizing some of the changes that need to be made. As top priorities, we tried to identify those things that can be done quickly and easily, as well as those changes that may take more time and resources to implement but will have a substantial impact.
The Role of the Sections
The strategic planning process will take much longer than one day and must include input from many more people, such as those involved in our Association's sections. Among other ways of seeking input from the sections, the officers and senior staff of the Association, for the first time at least in our memory, have been holding quarterly dinner meetings with section leaders. The first two dinners have been devoted to sharing "best practices" that have proven successful in building and adding value to section membership. At our next dinner meeting, we will again bring the section chairs into the strategic planning process and ask them to continue these discussions with their section executive committees. That alone will bring hundreds of Association members into the effort.
The staff of the Association is also crucial in the strategic planning process. Richard Walch, the executive director, has met several times with staff managers to elicit their ideas on how the Association can add more value to membership and operate more efficiently and effectively.
Interestingly, there are a number of parallels between the Superior Court Improvement Initiative and the Association's strategic planning process. First, there can be no sacred cows that are exempted from critical analysis or potential change. We must reconsider everything the Association does, including its governance and the manner in which sections and committees are formed and operate. Additionally, as in the court initiative, the value of the strategic planning process will increase as more and more people become involved. And that's where you come in. We encourage you to let us know your thoughts by writing or sending an e-mail message to Rich Walch email@example.com or directly to me firstname.lastname@example.org.
You all surely remember the story of the three blind men who examined an elephant by touch. One man felt the trunk and said an elephant was like a snake. Another felt a leg and said an elephant was more like a tree trunk. The third man felt the elephant's tusk and said there was no question about it-an elephant was like a long thin rock. Only when the ideas of all three were combined were the men able to arrive at a better result. As lawyers with differing practices and experiences, we each have our own perspective on how the Association can better serve its members. We look forward to hearing from you.