Membership and the Year Ahead

Posted on January 4th, 2017

Below is the speech made by 2017 MBA President Dean DeCandia at the 2016 Annual Meeting:

We have a lot of work to do, particularly in the area of membership, as Shea has mentioned. Just know that the membership problem is not unique to our Bar Association. It's happening in bar associations all over the country. Nor is it unique to bar associations. Membership has declined in many civic organizations for many years. There are theories as to why this is, but we don't have all night for me to pontificate about general generational differences and other factors. I only have a few minutes with you, so it's more helpful for me to simply suggest an approach to membership. An approach that's not necessarily exclusive of other approaches but one that I think will help, based on my observations and experience.

And that approach is this: recruiting and retaining members through tasking. Tasking, as in tasking someone with a responsibility. Or, in a volunteer organization, you may think of it more like asking. Recruitment and retention through tasking.

Let me give you a personal example. 10 years ago, I was not a member. And then someone tasked me, gave me something to do. And that something was to write a piece for the Memphis lawyer Magazine. This is the publication that you get several times a year. You may have noticed a regular column in there called the court report. It lists information about the trials that proceed in the various courts. Back then, there was a court report only for Circuit Court, but none for criminal court. So the communications director said to me, you work at 201 Poplar at the DAs office, you know what goes on down there, you're familiar with trials, and you have access to the information. You should write a criminal court report. People would like to read that. So I said OK. I wrote the court report, and then I kept writing the court report, because every few months I had another deadline. Not coincidentally, I joined and I kept renewing my membership. After all, for the first time I felt invested in the Bar Association. I felt useful.

A few years later, someone else tasked me. One of the assistant county attorneys who was on the board said to me, you know, we government lawyers are underrepresented in the Bar Association. You should start a government lawyers section. So I reluctantly agreed, and then I tasked other government lawyers to help me. And they did. And they were terrific. They became leaders of the section, and we put on CLE and had a good time, and we did what sections do.  My involvement with the government lawyers section led to my being asked to run for the board, which led to me being asked to run for this position.

And that's the story. But the significance of the story is that there's nothing special about it. This is your story too. I know this because I know most of you. You have been continually asked to do things over the years. And the value you get from the bar association is a product of the time and effort you put in. Your experience, my experience, our experience in the Bar Association is just a variation on the age-old theme that you get out what you put in.

I point this out not just so we can pat each other on the back for being such good contributing members. Although you should pack yourself on the back because I think you deserve it. The reason I point this out is that when it comes to recruiting new members to the Bar Association we don't often send this message. We don't often send the message that the value you get for membership is what you put in.

Rather, the discussions surrounding membership on both the local and national level (and I'm including myself in this because I do it too)…The discussions surrounding membership usually center around what kind of benefits we can promise people simply for joining. Sometimes the benefits are in the form of immediate gratification like, if you join now you'll get these free hours of CLE. Or sometimes they're more intangible benefits like, if you join you'll get endless opportunities to meet esteemed judges and lawyers. There's nothing wrong with these approaches. Will continue to implement these. But these approaches have not resonated as broadly across the bar as one might think. They have not pulled in as many members as we have hoped for. And I suspect the reason for this is there still more we can do to take advantage of what we know about skilled educated professionals. That skilled educated professionals, when it comes to being part of an association like ours, see value in the organization when they feel of value to the organization. When the organization sends a clear message to that professional that he or she has skills talents and interests that are of use to the organization, that have a place in the organization. When the organization doesn’t just make a general call to get involved but tells the individual that his or her particular skills and talents serve a particular purpose in the organization. For me 10 years ago, it was simply where I practice and having access to information.

But I'll give you some more recent anecdotal evidence just from the last couple of months.

A friend of mine has been licensed for the last few years. He has not been a member. He has what you might call an alternative legal career. He is a field representative for a US senator. So I called him and told him about our legislative committee and said you'd be perfect for this. There are so few lawyers who have such a working knowledge of how laws are passed. Would you be interested in serving on this committee? And he said sure, it sounds like fun. So I sent him an application and then you know what he did. He joined and started paying dues.

Another friend of mine used to be a member. But he let his membership lapse, and I assumed he had lost interest. He is a small firm practitioner who also happens to be technologically savvy. So I called him and told him about a committee that Judge Dan Michael was putting together to improve technology in his courtrooms. I told him you'd be perfect for this. You practice in juvenile court and you have the IT know how. Would you serve on this committee on behalf of the Bar Association? And he said I'd be happy to. And then I gently reminded him that he would need to renew his membership and start paying dues again. And he did just that.

Another friend of mine used to be a member years ago. In fact, he used to be on the board. But in the last few years, life has happened, priorities changed, costs have been cut. He is a solo practitioner, which is an underrepresented group in our Bar Association. He practices a lot of immigration and criminal defense. So I called him and said, we could use you on the CLE committee. We don't have a lot of seminars in these areas. And he said I’d love to, and then he asked me, I guess that means I need to re-join and pay dues. And I said well, yes. And he did exactly that.

Two months ago, we saw several law school graduates get admitted into the bar at a swearing in ceremony at City Hall. We put applications out for these new lawyers to join the Bar Association. As you may know, newly admitted lawyers enjoy their first year of membership for free. But rather than wait a year for these new lawyers to hopefully start becoming dues paying members next year, we didn't wait for that. We scooped up the applications, and our 2017 membership chair hit up these new lawyers to serve on the membership committee, so that they could network with other young lawyers and get more young lawyers into the bar association, which we desperately need.

Last story: that court report column… I've been writing it for the last 10 years. But as my presidency approached, I needed to hand it off to someone. So I contacted a friend of mine at the DAs office who has been mentioning for the last couple of years that he needs to get involved. So I said, here's a way. A task. Will you take over this column for me? And he said, I'd be happy to. And then you know what he did. He joined and started paying dues.

You're going to see a lot more of this asking and tasking in 2017. You can probably tell from my examples that it's tedious. It will take the cooperation of the board, the sections and the committees. And ideally from you. If each of you tasked one nonmember into joining, I'm confident that we would exceed our expectations for membership for next year. 

I'm looking forward to a productive 2017. I'd like to thank the nominations committee for nominating me for this position two years ago and thank the membership for allowing me to be your servant and leader for the coming year.

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