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MCBA President’s Message: The year ahead and the value of bar membership

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Jill Cicero

*Adapted from my remarks at the MCBA Installation Dinner on June 22, 2017.

Every bar president is asked about his or her plans for the year ahead. Twenty years ago, when I served as secretary of the MCBA, it was customary for the bar president to take office with a laundry list of objectives and initiatives for the coming year. Fortunately, that trend has moderated significantly since then.

Each bar president has spent the previous year as president-elect, enrolled in an immersion course that involves observing and participating in the leadership of the MCBA. This is extremely helpful for people like me, who have not served on the Board of Trustees for several years, although I have remained active in the MCBA in many other roles during that time. The year serving as president-elect provides us with the most current information about the functioning of the MCBA, as well as the opportunity to identify current issues that need to be addressed and for which our own particular skill sets are well suited.

The three words that encompass my formal plans for the year ahead are “strategic planning” and “governance.” Although these topics are admittedly unexciting, good strategic planning and governance are critical to the smooth functioning of any organization, and they are areas in which I have significant experience from my involvement with other professional and charitable organizations. I hope the members of the 2017-2018 Board of Trustees will be ready and willing, if not exactly eager, to dive into topics like strategic planning, bylaws, committee and section structure and function, leadership cultivation and succession planning. We will be working on all of these things to make sure that our governance structure and related documents accurately reflect our current processes and best practices.

We have also already begun working with the ABA Division of Bar Services to lead us through the strategic planning process, which is overdue, but which would have been difficult in Kevin Ryan’s first year as executive director. We hope to have a new three-year plan in place by early next year.

Otherwise, it is naive for me to believe that I can foresee the issues that will arise during my year as bar president, and I recognize that the bar association staff is not sitting around idly waiting for me to come up with new initiatives to occupy their time. We, and the Board of Trustees, will all spend most of our efforts in the next year doing the important work we should be doing every year: serving members and anticipating their future needs, being fiscally responsible stewards of the funds we collect to provide those services, representing the profession with integrity, and working to improve the administration of and access to justice, among other things. I am sure we will also respond to unforeseen issues that come up over the course of the year, and we will try to do so promptly, thoughtfully and strategically.

At last year’s Installation Dinner, I gave some remarks then as co-chair of the Legacy Society for the Telesca Center for Justice. At that time, I was struck by a couple of things that seem relevant to my feelings about serving as bar president and service to bar associations in general. The first was how many of our faithful bar leaders and members were on the list of founding members of the Legacy Society, and how they always seem to step up when we need them, with their time, their money and their commitment.

And second was Kevin’s appeal to the attorneys present to let him know how the bar association can better meet our members’ and the legal community’s needs. He essentially asked, “What can we do for you?” Throughout this year, Kevin has been innovative and diligent in focusing on ways to create additional value for our members, and to attract new members, because we and many local and state bar associations are experiencing declining membership.

As lawyers become more narrow in their practice focus, many now join specialty bar associations specifically related to their substantive areas of practice and see no need to be involved in their county or state bar associations. Or they feel they do not have enough time or energy to participate in both, and that membership in the local bar is unimportant. How different this perspective is from when I began practicing law, back when it was simply a given that you would join the MCBA and that it was important to your career for you to do so. That message was conveyed to new lawyers by every large firm in town and most of the smaller ones, by automatically paying for that membership, and by other attorneys in the firm who encouraged both membership and service and modeled it themselves.

It is entirely reasonable for an attorney to expect value for membership in a professional association, but I believe too many attorneys are now shortsighted in measuring that “value.” If, as I have sometimes been told, the only reason you have ever considered membership in the MCBA is to take advantage of continuing legal education opportunities, which are now conveniently and cost effectively available from many sources, or perhaps to obtain cheaper medical insurance, you probably would not attribute outstanding value to bar membership.

But if, instead, you view it as an opportunity to meet and work with attorneys outside your firm, perhaps from other practice areas, to speak at CLE programs and enhance your professional reputation, to cultivate mutually beneficial referral sources, to work with and become better known to members of the judiciary through service on some of our committees, and to develop leadership skills, then bar association membership and involvement is a great value. I have personally experienced all of these benefits from my involvement in MCBA.

But there is another equally important reason for bar membership and service, one that I wholeheartedly believe in, and it is one of the reasons I agreed to serve as president of the MCBA. You should not become a member and seek involvement solely because it provides a benefit to you, but because we each have a professional obligation to contribute to the legal community, to the people we serve and to those who are not adequately served by our profession.

We need your input and your energy in improving access to justice, legal education, our court system, diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, and so many other causes that are not for your personal benefit, but that ultimately affect us all. And if you tell me that you have not become involved because you disagree with the MCBA’s position on one issue or another, I can guarantee that it will never change if you do not join and be heard, or become more actively involved.

We want and need all your voices, not just those of the bar faithful who were the first to respond to the asks we made for Legacy Society planned gifts, among other things. I hope you will join me as active members of the MCBA for the coming year.

Jill M. Cicero is president of the Monroe County Bar Association and is the managing partner of The Cicero Law Firm LLP. She can be reached

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