Pyrz begins his last year leading Indiana State Bar Association

January 11, 2017
Thomas Pyrz, executive director since November 1992, has guided the Indiana State Bar Association to be more responsive to attorneys’ changing needs and demands. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

Baseball players are prone to superstitions so it’s not surprising that Thomas Pyrz, Indiana State Bar Association executive director and former shortstop, is starting one of his own.

Pyrz, who has led the ISBA since Nov. 22, 1992, plans to retire at the end of 2017. His nearly 25-year tenure has included hiring additional staff, launching new programs, and increasing the value of membership to counter attorneys’ shifting view of the association.

The white board hanging on his office wall shows that for his final year in office he will not be riding the bench. Marked on the coming months are meetings, conferences and tasks he has to complete as he continues to marshal the organization and prepare it for the next executive director.

However, the white board also shows he will be taking time to tend to his new superstition. There in March, several days are crossed out for a trip with his family to see the Chicago Cubs at spring training.

Pyrz factboxBorn and raised on the south side of Chicago, Pyrz is genetically predisposed to baseball. (He is the nephew of one-time Cincinnati Reds first baseman Ted Kluszewski.) He is a lifelong Cubs fan who remembers the heartbreak and disappointment that came with many baseball seasons.

He never wavered in his loyalty, and during the opening months of 2016, he took the time to attend his first Cubs spring training. Pyrz proudly noted that following his trip, the team went on to break its 108-year curse and win a World Series. Maybe, he said, if he does the same pre-season visit, the Cubs will repeat.

As another baseball superstition takes root, Pyrz sounded like a team manager as he discussed the year ahead and the demands of being a state bar executive director. He emphasized the attorney volunteers run the organization while he just provides stability by administering the programs and projects they want to enact. Leaders who take a my-way-or-the-highway approach make a big mistake.

John Meyers, executive director of the Kentucky Bar Association, echoed Pyrz, saying association leaders have to be able to adapt very readily. Each year, a new president is appointed, forcing the executive directors to meet the challenge of working with different people who have different leadership styles.

Meyers said his Hoosier counterpart has been successful because he does not get tangled in the details and does not lose sight of how things fit together.

“Tom always has a very good handle on the big picture,” Meyers said. “He can discuss various aspects of whatever project you’re talking about.”

The changing lineup is what keeps Pyrz engaged. Even after more than two decades as executive director, he still enjoys his job, especially because of the attorney volunteers and the new leaders who arrive bringing fresh ideas.

“The best part of my job is the dynamic volunteers I get to work with,” he said. “They are the absolute cream of the crop.”

From baseball to barrister

Pyrz credited his education at West Point, formally known at the United States Military Academy, with teaching him the managerial skills he uses at the bar association.

“If you do your job to the best of your ability and you have absolute integrity about you,” Pyrz explained, “you can do pretty much any job.”

Still, he paused before taking a swing at the question of whether he liked attending West Point, then explained he appreciated what the school taught him and the friendships he was able to form. He followed his older brother to the Army academy and spent each spring playing baseball, eventually becoming team captain.

More significantly, he rose to the rank of first captain and brigade commander of his senior class. In that position, he described himself as the “potted plant,” accompanying then-Superintendent William Knowlton on speaking engagements around the country and to dinner with heads of state.

After graduation in 1971, he joined an Army Ranger airborne company, “jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.” He was stationed in Germany when he was introduced to the legal profession by way of a jury summons.

“I was really enchanted by the way the lawyers worked the courtroom on both sides,” Pyrz said. “In some cases, I was disappointed by what I saw, and in some cases I was very excited by what I saw, and I said, ‘I think this is something I can do when I get out of the service.’”

Not waiting until he retired from the military, he enrolled as a young solider at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and then practiced in the U.S. Army JAG Corps. His last tour of duty was at Fort Benjamin Harrison where he struck up a friendship with Jack Lyle, the late ISBA executive director.

With Lyle’s encouragement, Pyrz took a “leap of faith” and applied for the position at the ISBA. He relied heavily on the small staff of 10 when he took over and stayed up late many nights reading about the history of the association.

Robert Craghead, executive director of the Illinois State Bar Association, watched Pyrz work and believes the West Pointer has improved the Indiana organization. Pyrz has met the demands by understanding the needs of ISBA members while embracing change that is coming at an ever faster pace.

“Tom Pyrz will be hard to replace no matter what,” Craghead said. “I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that Tom’s retirement is very bittersweet. He’s a very capable bar leader but also someone I consider to be my friend.”

The coming change-up

During Pyrz’s tenure, the nature of the Indiana State Bar Association, like bar associations across the country, changed.

Initially, bar associations were social organizations where attorneys gathered for conversation and friendship. They believed joining the organization was part of their professional obligation. Today, lawyers want to know what they will get in return for their dues, which has caused many associations to now focus on providing members the tools and resources they need to practice in a very competitive market.

Membership numbers are slipping although Pyrz estimated about 70 percent of attorneys licensed in Indiana belong to the ISBA.

Meyers and Craghead have seen this same trend in their own bar associations. In Indiana, like Illinois, membership is voluntary while Kentucky requires attorneys to join as a part of their license to practice in the Commonwealth.

Pyrz wondered if the next executive director might have to reconsider the voluntary format. In particular, he pointed to the Clients’ Financial Assistance Fund, which provides compensation to victims of attorney defalcation. Members of the association are paying money into the fund, he said, but nonmembers often are causing the payouts.

However, Craghead maintained that voluntary bars are better situated for survival. To stay relevant, these kinds of associations have learned to be nimble and respond quickly to changes and members’ needs.

Under Pyrz, the ISBA has done that. It has offered members free services like the online research portal Casemaker and launched programs, like the Indiana Kids’ Election and the Leadership Academy, which enable attorneys to become more involved with their communities.

He sees those programs as essential not only to the attorneys but also to the larger communities. He believes society would be hurt if the bar association dissolved.

“No question in my mind, we serve a valuable purpose in the day-to-day lives of the citizens and the lawyers of this state,” Pyrz said.

Once he leaves the ISBA, Pyrz does not plan to spend his days on a beach. He declined to provide details about his future plans but he did note he is definitely interested if the Cubs call.

“If they want a scout, I’d be OK with that,” he said.•


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