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Spurred by the demands of a new generation, the ISBA is taking steps - some of them big - to make itself even more valuable to Illinois lawyers.
When I graduated from law school in 1979, I joined the ISBA. I can't say exactly why I joined; that's just what attorneys did back then. And it seemed that most of my newly minted colleagues joined, too. We wanted to be involved and we wanted to meet other lawyers in our new profession.
I didn't ask what I would get for my dues and it never occurred to me not join the bar association. Within a few years, the ISBA and the Champaign County Bar became the hub of my professional life.
Fast forward 34 years and the ISBA is still the hub of my professional life and I still don't ask what I'm getting for my dues, but I am a part of a graying generation. What was important to us is not as important to the generations that followed us. Joining the state bar was once considered a matter of course, but not so any more.
In-person networking at ISBA meetings and events was essential to one's practice, but technology has given us new ways to connect through social media. After we survived three years of law school and passed the bar, we expected to have a job, get training, and be mentored. Today's graduates cannot realistically expect that. ABA statistics estimate that 44 percent of new law grads in 2012 do not have full-time employment requiring a JD. And of those who are fortunate enough to have jobs, many do not receive adequate training or mentoring. Many of those have gone out on their own.
Throw in the law school debt crisis and these new graduates are understandably in "survival mode" to pay for basic needs like housing and food. Unlike those of us in 1979, joining the ISBA is not a high priority - and they are definitely asking what they get for their dues dollars.
The answers to that question that worked in 1979 don't work now. Our membership has experienced a small but steady decline each year since 2000. While we have excellent retention at the more senior end of our membership, younger members are not staying and new lawyers are not joining at the same rate. Each year is not significant in and of itself, but the trend is indicative of a larger issue - that we are not attracting and keeping enough younger members.
Technology, the profession, and the next generation of lawyers have evolved dramatically over the last five years, but we must ask if our association has kept pace with that evolution. When a law school graduate asks "Why should I join the ISBA?" we must articulate our value proposition and it must be relevant to their needs.
Over the last year, ISBA leadership and staff officers have begun to take a hard look at the relevancy and value proposition of our organization. President-Elect Rick Felice chaired a special committee last year that researched the changing model of associations and dug deep into the ISBA's evolving demographics. As a result, the ISBA made a radical change and began offering 15 hours of free online CLE to our members.
In March, the Board of Governors devoted a day to educating itself on trends in associations and strategic planning for the future of the ISBA. Our presenter was association strategist Mary Byers, whose book Race for Relevance inspired the title for this column. As a result of that strategic planning, the Board agreed to 1) rigorously define our target member market, 2) consider reducing the size and cost of our governance bodies, and 3) concentrate our member services on tangible benefits.
ISBA will concentrate on marketing the benefits of free CLE, Fastcase (online research) and E-Clips (case digests and legal news) as essential tools for practice. We will continue to fine-tune IllinoisLawyerFinder to help our members generate business and tout the affordability of our member-owned, members-only ISBA Mutual Insurance Company. We will show that ISBA is the one membership an Illinois lawyer needs to practice law.
To best align our financial and staff resources to those association priorities, the Assembly and Board budget committees made difficult decisions affecting traditional and long-standing programs. Some members were understandably disappointed, but despite how uncomfortable change can be for all of us, change is essential to remaining relevant.
Beyond what we have already learned from the ISBA Law School Debt Crisis report, we will work to identify and understand the needs of new lawyers and how the ISBA can help. In this presidential year, we have formed the New Lawyer Task Force chaired by two talented young lawyers - Marron Mahoney and Brian Monico. I'll talk more about Marron and Brian next month, but suffice it to say they and their outstanding committee of young lawyers and recent grads have taken on a task that will reshape the ISBA as we race for relevance.
Paula Hudson Holderman, 137th President of the ISBA, is the chief attorney development officer at Winston & Strawn LLP headquartered in Chicago. She has global responsibility for the firm's professional development and all facets of attorney education and training.
Prior to joining Winston in 2002, Paula was the director of hiring, training, and minority recruiting for the Cook County State's Attorney's Office. She previously served as associate director of the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution and director of clinical education at John Marshall Law School. She was an assistant state's attorney in the Champaign County State's Attorney's Office from 1979-1989, where she tried dozens of criminal and civil trials.
She has served on the ISBA Board of Governors since 2006 and was a member of the Assembly for almost two decades, having been elected from both the 6th Judicial Circuit and the First District. She was chair of the Standing Committee on Women and the Law and the Bench and Bar Section Council and spearheaded the establishment of the ISBA Law & Leadership Initiative.