Two accomplishments early on in my career confirmed for me that I had arrived as a lawyer.
First was my success, through Winston Churchill-like oratory, in getting a federal judge to reverse a tentative ruling against my client on a motion that opposing counsel had not even bothered to oppose. In retrospect, this may not have been quite the victory I thought it was at the time.
Second was being invited to serve on the Los Angeles County Bar Association's Committee on Homelessness. In those days, taking part in a bar association committee, especially as a young lawyer, was a mark of distinction. The bar associations were powerful players, both within legal circles and in the community at large. Senior partners from the most prestigious law firms served on these boards. And association leaders were a virtual who's who of the community's leading legal lights. Participation in a local bar's work not only felt important, it actually was
My early experiences marked the start of what would become a long history of involvement with bar associations. I was not quite a "bar junkie," but close to it. I served on a local bar association's board of governors. I chaired committees. I weighed in on bar associations' amicus curiae briefs, gave presentations to bar subcommittees, and attended more rubber chicken bar dinners then I, or my arteries, care to remember. Through it all I was able to strike up enduring friendships with some of the best, brightest, and most selfless public-minded individuals I've ever known.
In recent years, though, the fortunes of these organizations have been in marked decline. The quality of the lawyers involved is as good as ever, but bar associations' memberships are down, their finances are strained, and there is the growing sense that these organizations aren't nearly as consequential as they used to be. As one former president of a large bar association confided to me recently, "It is now a legitimate question to ask: Do we even need a local bar association?"
Nationally, according to the American Bar Association Division for Bar Services, from 2009 to 2011 an average of 8 percent of local bar members chose not to renew their membership. In California, bar leaders confirm that the percentage of lawyers who belong to bar associations in their respective jurisdictions has been in decline for quite some time. The vast majority of California bar associations showed a decline or no growth in membership in 2011.
How are we to explain this downward spiral? Some of this decline is due to larger societal trends. Since the 1960s, civic organizations in general have been losing members at a steady rate. Moreover, the law profession itself has changed dramatically. Billable hour requirements for both associates and partners are certainly a lot steeper than when I cut my teeth on the law. And with so much emphasis placed on developing new business, bar association activities are increasingly viewed as superfluous.
Local bars are, at least to a certain extent, also victims of their own success. For decades, they were instrumental in promoting and creating countless special interest bar associations and public interest organizations. The proliferation of these minority and public interest bar associations is an eloquent testament to how important and effective bar associations can be. Yet now, these same organizations are competing with the general bar associations for both attention and financial support.
And then there was the decision many local bars made 20 or 30 years ago to narrow the focus of their mission from serving the community at large to emphasizing membership benefits, such as offering insurance, MCLE credits, and networking opportunities. As another former local bar president I talked to observed: "Bar associations to an increasing extent no longer stand for much beyond the narrow needs of their own members. But if you don't stand for anything," she added, "why would you join? The benefits that the bar associations provide can easily be obtained elsewhere."
These problems aren't trivial. But for all of the challenges local bar associations now face, they are still in a unique position to address some of the legal profession's biggest challenges. Consider, for example, the draconian budget cuts that are hitting our state courts. It is true that the State Bar of California has done a valiant job trying to fight those cuts. But it is also true that the State Bar's budget is largely under the control of Sacramento politicians, and these officials are not above punishing institutions that they see as overstepping their bounds - a phenomenon that the State Bar is all too familiar with.
Unlike the State Bar, though, local bars are largely self-financed and so their hands are not so tightly tied. If local bar associations - with tens of thousands of lawyers to draw upon, and the thousands of local businesses to which they, in turn, are connected - make clear to their local state assembly members and senators how deeply they care about the financial well being of the judicial branch, the discussions in Sacramento regarding the court system may begin to go in a different direction.
Local bar associations also have an important role to play in helping those who are just entering the legal profession. As we all know, finding a law-related job is harder than it used to be. In fact, for every two lawyers entering the job market right now only one law-related job opening exists. This makes it more important than ever for local bar associations to step up to the plate to help young law school graduates as much as possible. Associations might offer seminars on critical legal and business-related skills, for example. And they can connect newly practicing lawyers to potential employers. Local bars should provide these and other services at minimal or no cost to those who need them most, and they should not require membership as a condition for receiving these services, since these days so many freshly minted lawyers are already deeply in debt. For decades, bar associations have prided themselves on investing in each new generation of lawyers - and by so doing earned their loyalty for decades to come.
Finally, local bar officials need to once again restore their reputations for both straight talk and moral rectitude. Of course in the past, journalists could be counted on to undertake in-depth reporting and analysis. But with so many newspapers in decline, such examinations are becoming a lost art. With all of the writing and analytical talent within the ranks of local bars, they can, at least to a point, help fill that gap. Likely areas of concern include local child dependency systems, court building programs, and local prison conditions. By devoting more energy to addressing these issues local bars would provide a valuable service to the public and at the same time recapture the moral and professional high ground that once was their hallmark.
To be sure, some local bars are already doing much of this. But even bar leaders acknowledge that these efforts are uncoordinated and at times ineffective. As one current leader of a large association told me: "We've had a hard time figuring out how to make it all work, and we're clearly not as effective as we would like to be."
After years of decline, these organizations are in a pitched fight to establish their institutional direction and future relevance. It is still, I believe, a worthy and winnable fight. But some new, perhaps controversial, approaches will be required. As my grandfather, also a lawyer, once taught me, "If you're in a fight and you may go down, you might as well go down swinging." That's what lawyers do. That's what their associations should do as well.
Litigation partner Dan Grunfeld co-heads Kaye Scholer's Los Angeles and Palo Alto offices. Formerly a top policy advisor to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, he also was Public Counsel's president and CEO.