Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

MSBA’s Race for Relevance

How relevant is the MSBA to you?  For some of our members the MSBA remains extraordinarily relevant.  For others less so.  The association has slowly been losing members over the past two decades.  And many current members are not very engaged.  An unengaged membership is the greatest threat to the future of the association.  Unengaged members lose interest in membership and eventually fall away.  So how does the MSBA remain relevant in these challenging times?  It starts with a critical self-assessment and a willingness to undertake significant changes to bring greater value to its members.  Fortunately, your MSBA leadership started down that road almost two years ago.

Back in December 2012 the MSBA Council spent half a day considering the relevance of the MSBA to its members.  To prepare for the event we read Race For Relevance, by Mary Beyers and Harrison Coever.  The book advises associations (both legal and nonlegal) that changing conditions require dramatic changes within associations to remain or become relevant to their members. One of the primary challenges identified by the authors is the increasing diversity of members’ needs and interests. This results in associations spreading their resources too thin to provide sufficient value to any single group of members to justify the expense of membership.

Focusing Our Resources

To counter the problem identified in Race For Relevance, the MSBA Council adopted a plan to focus resources, and therefore increase the value proposition, to solo and small firm lawyers over a three-year period so that more of them would stay or become new members.  The Council’s commitment includes limiting any new MSBA programs or expenditures for the next three years to those that are designed to serve this segment of our membership.  The effort is aptly named, Focus 2016.  A committee consisting of solo and small firm lawyers and five full-time MSBA staff are hard at work developing practical tools to give these lawyers an edge as they compete in a legal landscape increasingly dominated by online service providers like LegalZoom, Avvo, Modus and Rocket Lawyer.

In adopting this strategy, the Council emphasized that the MSBA will continue its commitment to provide valuable services to all members.  The current programs and services that members find helpful—popular sections, online offerings such as Fastcase, legislative advocacy at the Capitol—will continue.  Some less valuable programs may be discontinued. And some programs may be refocused to increase value to the solo/small firm segment.  If this market-focused approach succeeds, then the MSBA will identify other market segments—greater Minnesota lawyers, new lawyers, large firm lawyers, government lawyers—and work to increase the value of membership to those groups.  This “market segment” strategy will roll out over a  number of years.

Addressing Challenges

Another way to remain relevant is to tackle issues of critical importance to our members.  Earlier this year the MSBA created two task forces to address challenges to the practice of law and in legal education.  The “Challenges to the Practice of Law” Task Force is cochaired by attorneys Susan Minsberg (St. Paul) and Paul Floyd (Minneapolis).  It will make recommendations to help members respond to challenges posed by technology, student debt loads, and the unauthorized practice of law.  The “Future of Legal Education” Task Force is cochaired by retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justices Sam Hanson and Helen Meyer.  It will make recommendations on ways to help our law school graduates be prepared for the demands of being a lawyer in the 21st Century.

The work of both task forces will be on display when the chairs report on their progress and seek input from members at the next Assembly meeting on September 12.  My hope is that both groups will offer bold and creative recommendations when they report back to the MSBA Assembly next spring.  We owe our members nothing less.  As the late Steve Jobs once said, “Quality is much better than quantity.  One home run is much better than two doubles.”

Building Community

Another way the MSBA can remain relevant is returning to the basics of building relationships among members.  This is more of a challenge for a state bar association with 16,000 members than smaller district bars across the state.  Yet, I sense our members yearn for greater connections with other lawyers.  Some of those connections happen online on the MSBA’s popular listservs.  If you haven’t encountered the solo/small firm listserv, it’s a great example of a connected community of members.  It’s large, unwieldy, and sometimes a bit chaotic.  But we would be crazy to change it.  Other connections happen the old-fashioned way during one-on-one conversations with members at section meetings, CLEs, and social events.

Last month I attended the annual Range/Duluth Bar Picnic at Giant’s Ridge in Biwabik.  Duluth lawyer Steve Reyelts and his office assistant, Jean “Peanut” Rufer, organize the event each year. There is no business agenda.  Just a bunch of lawyers getting together to play golf, dance polka, compete in a “Heidi Look-Alike” contest
(I didn’t win), and enjoy dinner.  Now that’s a district bar that knows how to have fun!  The MSBA could learn a few things from these folks.

I welcome your suggestions for how the MSBA can make itself more relevant for you.  Please contact me by phone (612-492-7333) or email ( to offer your candid advice during the upcoming bar year.

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Richard H. Kyle Jr.

Richard H. Kyle Jr. was the 2014-15 president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. A shareholder with Fredrikson & Byron PA in Minneapolis, he is a criminal defense lawyer who has practiced law in both solo and large firm settings since being admitted to the Minnesota Bar in 1990.