At the recent ABA meeting in San Francisco, which I attended, the National Conference of Bar Presidents held a moderated discussion “Bar Associations . . . “ It is about changing or be irrelevant. During the annual meeting, I had several conversations with others about the value of belonging to a bar association, and how bars need to be relevant to their members or risk losing members and member participation.
Then I heard this: The attendance for this ABA meeting was approximately 3,500 registrants. Out of nearly 400,000 total ABA members. It was the smallest attendance for an annual meeting held in this city in decades. (I remember when attendance was reported at 10,000.)
In contrast, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, of which I am a member and employee, held our annual meeting in San Francisco in June, where attendance topped out at over 3,800 registrants. It was the largest annual meeting attendance in AILA’s history. AILA has 13,000 members—less than 3% the size of the ABA.
It is a clear sign of two bar associations going in two directions.
I have been an active member of the ABA for 16 years, and I am not trying to bad-mouth the association, but it is clear that change is needed to rejuvenate the members to once again participate in annual meetings and beyond.
The law is becoming more specialized, so an all-encompassing legal event like the ABA Annual Meeting has less of a draw today. So while 20 or more ABA Sections participate, they don't necessarily create their best programming for this August event. Most sections save those CLE programs for their fall and spring quarterly meetings, where it is exclusively their content and, frankly, their profit.
I thoroughly enjoy the networking opportunities at the ABA meeting, but fewer lawyers need or afford this exposure. Plus, younger lawyers have more trouble paying the costs, especially when they have on-line networking options such as LinkedIn available.
I think specialty bars, such as AILA, and ABA sections, such as the Health Law Section, are where lawyers are finding the best bang for their conference buck. I hope the ABA recognizes this and makes changes to their annual meeting structure, or more regular attendees like me will stop attending.