When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was producing a hodgepodge of computers. There were a dozen different versions of the Macintosh and hundreds of peripherals available to the public. Jobs was horrified. He directed his team to drop almost everything they were doing and focus on only four great products. His engineers and designers were stunned and angry. But by focusing on making just four computers, Jobs probably saved Apple. “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he later told his biographer. “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”
It is also true for bar associations. The MSBA does not make iPhones or iPads, but it does offer a wide array of services and programs to its members. Over the years those services and programs have grown exponentially to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse membership. The updated MSBA website highlights a dazzling array of CLEs and events, practice tools (practicelaw, Fastcase, mndocs, eBooks), association news, policy updates, member discounts, and job openings. Each program is certainly worthy in its own right. The result, however, is that the MSBA has spread itself too thin. This affects our ability to retain members and remain relevant.
It used to be that lawyers automatically joined the bar association. When my grandfather was president of the Ramsey County Bar Association in the early 1960s all the lawyers at his firm, Briggs & Morgan, joined the state and district bar, attended meetings, and volunteered on committees. That is no longer the case.
Now lawyers expect value and demand return for their investment. They are also busier than ever. Heck, I get that. When I was a sole practitioner I thought long and hard about the value of my bar membership before paying state (and district) bar dues. Now I practice at a large law firm that pays my dues but also expects me to service our evermore demanding clients in a highly competitive marketplace. Finally, our members are more diverse than ever before (thank heavens) and have different interests, needs, and expectations regarding membership.
So it should come as no surprise that the percentage of lawyers who are MSBA members has slipped from 70 percent in 1997 to around 62 percent today. And future demographic trends will make retaining members even more challenging. A record number of Baby-Boomer attorneys will retire over the next two decades and the number of individuals enrolling in law schools has fallen dramatically since the start of the recession in 2008.
Notwithstanding these challenges I have great optimism about the future of the bar association and the legal profession. Great challenges create great opportunities.
A Need to Focus
My agenda for the upcoming bar year is simple: to begin a sustained, multiyear effort to focus the MSBA’s resources on what it does best. We have good sections, popular online services, and a strong legislative presence at the State Capitol. We need to build on these successful programs and up our game in other areas such as diversity. To remain relevant the MSBA must learn to focus more.
Fortunately, your MSBA leadership has begun to think differently about the range of the association’s programs and activities. We now recognize that continuing to offer a broad array of programs only spreads our resources and inhibits the association from excelling in any one area. We have begun to set budget priorities and scrutinize programs in an effort to bring more value to our members.
An example of this new thinking is the Council’s recent adoption of Focus 2016, an initiative aimed at solo and small-firm lawyers. Under this initiative the MSBA will limit any new programs or expenditures over the next three years to those designed to serve the solo and small-firm segment of our membership. I will provide more details as we formally roll out this important initiative in the fall. Of course, we will continue to support all of our members, whether they work at large firms, in the government sector, or as corporate counsel. After all, the MSBA represents all lawyers in Minnesota.
The Focus 2016 initiative could not have occurred without the leadership of recent past-presidents Brent Routman, Bob Enger, and Phil Duran. Brent oversaw common-sense changes to association governance. During his tenure the 15-person Council became the new board of directors with responsibility for the operations of the association and the 130-person Assembly remained responsible for policy decisions. As a result the MSBA now has a manageably sized board, which can make decisions more efficiently and with more accountability. Bob and Phil have very capably led the reorganized Council over the past two years and stressed the need to focus the MSBA on what it does best.
My Metaphorical Bike
Steve Jobs liked to take long walks when contemplating the next new thing. I like to ride my bike—a lot. And I have the scars from past crashes to prove it! It’s probably no coincidence that my favorite bike is manufactured by Focus, a German company. It’s very light. The design is simple. There are no unnecessary parts. I look forward to riding with many of you during the upcoming bar year.
Like Jobs, I would prefer to do a great job at fewer things than an adequate job at many things. Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what