The Irish writer Frank O’Connor told the story of two boys wandering the countryside. Whenever they reached an orchard wall that was too imposing for them to continue their journey, they would take off their hats and throw them over the wall. That way, they would have no choice but to climb the wall and get them back. President Kennedy referenced O’Connor’s story in his 1963 speech announcing the commitment of the United States to space travel. Despite the unknown dangers, JFK declared that the United States had thrown its hat over the wall of space and had no choice but to follow it.
It is time for the MSBA to throw its hat over the wall and commit itself to identifying its purpose, why it exists, and why anyone should care. Why is this so critical? Because otherwise the almost certain future we are facing is one of continued declining membership and decreasing engagement of our newer lawyers. Despite the great work we are doing, market forces are speaking to us loud and clear. The declining engagement of our newer lawyers is particularly striking. We are a young bar. Of our 25,229 active licensed attorneys, 34 percent were admitted in the last 10 years and 58 percent were admitted in the past 20 years. Millennials will soon be the face of our profession in every sector of the legal services market. Taking action is urgent. We must respond to our new environment and transform ourselves into an organization that is not only relevant for the next generation, but also empowers that next generation.
How do we do this? We start with the question of why we exist. This is because, as Simon Sinek puts it, “people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” Long-term success and customer loyalty are driven and inspired by what an organization believes, not what products it sells. Indeed, great organizations identify what Jim Collins calls the “hedgehog concept” and devote all their energy and resources to that one thing. The MSBA needs to decide what it is deeply passionate about, what it can be the best in the world at, and what drives our membership. This will permit us to create a future for the MSBA that empowers our members and thrives in today’s lawyer market. Without our pole star, we cannot make sensible decisions about how to set membership dues and spend membership revenue. We can’t know how to spend our money if we don’t know why we exist. We cannot organize and focus the great work of our staff and volunteers. If we were in the private marketplace, we’d be acting like our life depended on doing this transformative work. From the perspective of our members, our life does depend on it.
We are ready to build a shared future, one that celebrates the amazing accomplishments of the past, but also closes a chapter on our past ways of doing things in recognition that they no longer serve us in this new environment. We “vintage lawyers” are stuck in a mindset and a way of seeing and being that no longer fits with our changing legal services market. That is why our generation has been unable to transform the MSBA by itself. Diversity, including generational diversity, thrusts us into reality by expanding the bandwidth of perception and creating better options and outcomes that work. I am proud of all we have accomplished this year on diversity and inclusion. It has taken courage and foresight. And it is a mountain with no top. We are now ready to have the critical conversations needed to transform the MSBA with our council and assembly, with our diverse lawyers and next-generation lawyers at the table as equal partners.
So I am throwing the MSBA hat over the wall. Should we continue to set membership dues and create our annual budgets based on a past way of seeing and doing that does not serve us now? Should we wait for the next generation to build a bar that works for them when it is their turn to lead? Or should we grab this opportunity and leverage our strengthened ties to our affinity bars and the next generation to create a 21st Century bar that works right now? I am excited to create with you a new MSBA that empowers our members to empower their clients, the profession, and our community. It won’t be easy. And we won’t necessarily look good doing it. And we cannot fail. I invite you to climb that orchard wall with me.
Join Us! next-generation bar
Beginning March 29, 2017, the MSBA will be hosting bi-weekly meetings on Wednesdays from 4 to 6 pm to discuss how to create a next-generation bar. You are invited to participate in these meetings, and you don’t have to attend every meeting to contribute to our work. The meetings will be held at the MSBA with a call-in option. I invite you to read Steve Zaffron and David Logan’s book “The Three Laws of Performance” and watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk.
ROBIN M. WOLPERT is a legal strategist, litigator, and appellate lawyer at Sapientia Law Group, where she focuses her practice on complex business litigation, data privacy, constitutional law, and political law compliance. Robin represents clients in litigation involving private parties or the government, parallel civil and criminal proceedings, civil and criminal appeals, and investigations.