Oregon State Bar Bulletin NOVEMBER 2015
For several years, the Board of Governors has conducted program reviews to ensure that the bar’s discretionary programs are run effectively and efficiently and adhere closely to our mission. Through this process, we have contained costs and managed our resources to the degree that there has not been a general fee increase in 11 years. Earlier program reviews have led to the elimination of the printed membership directory, the decision to make BarBooks a member benefit instead of a subscription service, and the adoption of a percentage-fee funding model for the Lawyer Referral Service. Although some of you still miss the printed directory, we stand by that decision for reasons of efficiency, sustainability and accuracy of our posted membership records. The BarBooks decision has always been popular — like BarBooks itself, which is averaging more than 12,000 page views per work day this year — but it did mean a substantial decrease in revenue to the bar. The lawyer referral changes, like the membership directory, were contentious, but they have achieved the intended result of making the program self-supporting through user fees rather than general membership fees.
Last year, we turned our attention to continuing legal education. The OSB CLE Seminars Department has been unable to meet its goal of a break-even budget for many years. We took a hard look at market conditions, including internal and external competition, and reviewed a number of bar policies regarding CLE. We considered several courses of action, including eliminating our program and allowing bar sections to carry the weight of live, local CLE production. The problem with that, we discovered, was it would actually cost us much more.
Here’s the situation: About half of the bar’s 42 sections work with the CLE Seminars department to put on their seminars. Financially that’s a break-even proposition since the fees paid by the sections cover the costs. The sections that host seminars without involving our CLE Seminars department, on the other hand, actually cost the bar money. The reason is that no fees are charged but costs are still incurred, most notably for processing registration payments. Bar groups that don’t contract for registration services can only accept payment by check (due to accounting standards that apply to the bar) and those checks need to be processed by the bar’s accounting department. Check processing is much more expensive than credit card processing, plus we have had repeated issues with tracking down missing checks and getting checks submitted months after they were written.
Once we understood the financial situation, it was clear that something needed to change. We saw three possibilities: charge a fee for processing checks for section CLE registrations; increase the per-member “support assessment” currently charged to all sections; or require sections to use registration services. The first option would be an administrative nightmare and the second would have a broad, negative impact on all section budgets. The third option not only seemed the most fair, it also offered other benefits: every seminar would have online registration 24/7 with payment by credit card; cancellation and refund processing would be included; sections would get registration lists for check-in purposes; MCLE attendance reporting would be simplified; date conflicts would be reduced with a single-source entry point for scheduling; and all programs would be automatically included in the bar’s online event calendar, giving members a convenient place to find and register for any seminar sponsored by the bar or one of its affiliate groups.
The Board of Governors decided to move forward with requiring the use of registration services for all section CLE events. To make the changes easier to implement, we decided to wait until after installation of the bar’s new database software (scheduled for mid-2016) to make them effective. This gives us time to work with the sections to address any concerns and work on implementation details. By waiting for the new software, which allows us to bring registration services in house, we also expect to decrease costs and lower the fees we charge for registration services.
The financial realities were not the only reason we decided to continue offering OSB CLE. Last year, while the Board of Governors was conducting its review, President Tom Kranovich wrote about the situation in this space. The responses he received were strongly in support of continuing the program. I personally was most persuaded by the many comments I have heard from bar members in rural areas, who greatly appreciate the live webcasts offered by OSB CLE. These programs allow lawyers to participate in real time from any remote location, and are currently only available with bar-sponsored programs. As a statewide organization, we need to provide more of these live webcasts, not fewer.
Which brings us to a second area of section CLE: co-sponsorship. Many sections co-sponsor with CLE Seminars to present programs, with the section responsible for the legal content and the seminars staff responsible for administration and logistics. Because of the benefits of a coordinated approach, and the desirability of promoting live webcasting and other delivery methods, we have decided to require sections to offer co-sponsorship to CLE Seminars for all programs longer than three hours. Again, the new policy will not take effect immediately; to give sections time to adjust, the policy will not take effect until 2017. The policy does not envision that all section programs will be co-sponsored — which is the rule in other states — or that co-sponsorship will necessarily work the same way it does today. We are open to new models and suggestions that further our goals of increased efficiency and greater access to live CLE programming.
With these preliminary decisions made, the Board of Governors directed bar staff to meet with each section to talk about the changes and discuss any concerns. I have attended several of these meetings, as has Tom Kranovich, who wanted to continue with the project that consumed much of his term as OSB president. We have received a lot of feedback, both positive and negative, and some excellent suggestions. The Board of Governors will be discussing that feedback at our annual retreat in November.
One takeaway from the section meetings that troubles me is that some sections clearly do not see themselves as part of the larger bar organization. I suspect we do not interact enough to maintain strong relationships. While that may be understandable given the number of sections we have, I think the Board of Governors could do a better job of connecting sections to the larger organization. That’s why we will be hosting a special session for section leaders next spring to talk about the final outcome of all these discussions. This is still a work in progress.
Not coincidentally, the board’s next area of program review is bar sections. While each section has its own executive committee and budget, their operations are subsidized by general membership fees. The Board of Governors has always supported that subsidy because of the unquestioned importance of bar sections. Sections promote lawyer networking and collegiality, are active in law improvement and legislative activities and provide valuable educational resources for their members. We do not want any of that to stop. We remain, however, committed to ensuring that all voluntary bar programs operate efficiently and effectively. I would like to share some of the information and questions we have been asking sections (and will continue to ask) in advance of our review.
First, the OSB has a very high number of sections, currently 42 with some talk of number 43 soon to come. State bars of comparable size include Alabama with 27 and Oklahoma with 24. Even larger bars have fewer sections: Washington and Arizona each have 28 and California only 16. Administrative time and expenses increase with the addition of each new section. Some smaller sections struggle to find a purpose, while some larger sections have large fund balances and pay independent contractors to work for them. Questions for discussion include:
Should large sections with adequate means be encouraged to form independent organizations if they want more independence from the OSB?
Should there be a minimum number of members required to maintain a section?
Could some sections be merged?
Do we need a different type of group structure, perhaps with fewer constraints? For example, we could establish online forums open to any bar member interested in a particular area of law, allowing them to communicate and share information without a formal structure.
Second, some sections are carrying large fund balances. The total fund balance for all sections has been increasing year after year, and totaled $713,337 at the end of 2014. This is not a cost to the bar, but is not a “best practice” for membership organizations and nonprofits. Questions for section leaders include:
Should the OSB have a policy or offer guidelines on appropriate reserves for bar sections?
Should sections with large fund balances be encouraged to decrease membership fees?
Currently the bar’s administrative charge to sections is set at 50 percent of the actual cost. Is it necessary to keep subsidizing sections that have fund balances exceeding two or three years of their projected dues revenue?
The Board of Governors will not take up the broader discussion about sections until next year, but your input is welcome now and in the future. If you are a section leader, look for an invitation to the meeting next spring. And please feel free to share your thoughts with me any time by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
OSB President Rich Spier is a mediator in Portland.
© 2015 Rich Spier