Ripple effect: As ABA restructures, legal groups feel anxious

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The National Association of IOLTA Programs grew up with nurturing care from the American Bar Association, but now, at 32 years of age, the nonprofit is having to become more responsible for its own needs as the ABA undergoes a major restructuring.

Currently, NAIP – born in 1986 as Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) programs were popping up around the country – is taking an assessment of itself and determining what its future will be. The organization worked closely with the ABA Commission on IOLTA and depended on the ABA for technological and administrative support.

That support is being reduced as the ABA slims down.

It’s likely NAIP would have become more independent over time, but the nonprofit is having to take those steps more quickly because of the changes at the ABA, according to Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation and past president of NAIP.

dunlap-chuck-mug Dunlap

“It’s all good,” Dunlap said, “but it’s a challenge it’s happening so fast from a staffing model.”

The ABA is downsizing its staff and realigning its operations in response to declining revenues, according to the ABA Journal. Membership has fallen to just 22 percent of the lawyers in the United States, and since 2014, the operating budget has shrunk from $116 million to $96.1 million.

As reported by the ABA Journal, the association’s board of governors in February 2017 authorized the executive director to move forward with a plan to cut $10.7 million from the general operations budget. Since then, the organization has offered buyouts to senior staff and restructured to focus on specific goals like improving the legal profession, enhancing diversity and advancing the rule of law.

The internal changes are causing a ripple effect and rocking other legal nonprofits and associations like NAIP. Of the organizations interviewed by the Indiana Lawyer, none are in danger of dissolving because of the ABA’s pulling back, but many are saying sad goodbyes to longtime staff members and harboring some concerns about what could come.

In the Hoosier state, the Indiana State Bar Association is not dependent on the ABA for financial or staffing support. However, the ISBA does have a relationship with the association, collaborating and sharing ideas.

“Will (the ABA’s) restructuring affect us, that remains to be seen,” said Andi Metzel, president of the Indiana State Bar Association. “I don’t think so. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of seizing opportunities statewide.”

Tangible and intangible impact

NAIP is feeling the consequences more acutely. The nonprofit depended on one full-time and one part-time ABA staff member and piggybacked its conferences with the association’s meetings so it did not have to spend time on details like selecting a hotel and taking reservations.

With the restructuring, the ABA is providing one staff member part-time to NAIP. Dunlap said the organization is presently transitioning. Not only is it looking to potentially hire an administrative staff member and revamping its dues structure, but it is also considering a shift in focus from just IOLTA to the broader issue of civil legal aid in order to bring in more members.

Similarly, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers has relied on the ABA and worked closely with the association’s Center for Professional Responsibility.

George Clark, solo practitioner in Washington, D.C., and president of APRL, said the ABA staff was the most valuable resource. The association employees assigned to APRL did “tremendous work over the years,” Clark said, providing administrative help as well as institutional knowledge. They had insight into why and how the ABA addressed ethical and professional responsibility issues in the past.

“The ABA’s ability to do the same things they’ve done in the past has been impacted, but in terms of direct impact, I suppose we’re having to work a little harder,” Clark said.

In fact, he speculated the ABA, as it shrinks, may start tapping into outside legal groups for help. Always, the association has been “very appreciative” when other organizations bring a topic or area of concern to its attention. Getting that direction alleviated the ABA from having to do everything itself.

“I think if anything, there may be more of that,” Clark said of outside groups offering input. “(The ABA) won’t have much time to devote to things.”

Dunlap has concerns about the intangible impact the ABA’s downsizing might have. He worries the association will not be as comprehensive and as involved in different areas as it has in the past. Also, it might not offer that forum where attorneys from different practices and organizations can come together to share ideas.

While he acknowledged the future is uncertain, George “Buck” Lewis said it is premature to count the ABA out.

A shareholder at Baker Donelson in Memphis, Tennessee, Lewis has been an active member of the ABA. He has held leadership positions on the ABA Pro Bono and Public Service Committee and spearheaded the creation and launch of the ABA Free Legal Answers website.

The association is going through lean times, like every organization does, but, Lewis said, it is still the spokesperson for the legal profession.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Lewis said, “the ABA is going to be there when I’m eating applesauce in assisted living.”

A platform with clout

Metzel, partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, can sympathize with the ABA as it suffers through serious trouble. Lawyers in Indiana, as around the country, are pressured by competing groups for their time and treasure. They cannot belong to everything, so they might be opting to join an organization focused on their particular practice area rather than becoming a member of the ABA, which pertains to the profession as a whole.

But like Dunlap, Metzel sees the comprehensive nature of the ABA as beneficial to the legal profession. Attorneys from different states and sectors of the economy come together and exchange ideas or raise issues that the association will then take up and put before the House of Delegates for a debate.

harrell-terry-mug-lg.jpg Harrell

From there, state bar associations and supreme courts can pick up the end products of the ABA’s work and use them as a starting point for their own discussions and initiatives.

“The ABA has been an incredible platform and effective mechanism for voicing concerns that affect the legal profession nationally,” Metzel said.

In her efforts to improve attorney health and well-being, Terry Harrell credits the ABA with using its national stage to push the issue into the conversation of the legal community.

Harrell, executive director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, is former chair of the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and is part of the ABA Presidential Working Group to Advance Wellbeing in the Legal Profession.

In addition to administrative and funding support, the ABA provides a platform for the well-being effort, Harrell said. It uses its platform to get the message out and keep the conversation going about maintaining wellness and seeking help for mental health and addiction problems.

“I do think the ABA has enjoyed a big role in the lawyer well-being movement,” she said.

At the ABA’s upcoming annual meeting in Chicago, Harrell will take time to attend two retirement functions for staff members. She is anxious about the loss of the personnel and the potential that the volunteer members of the commission and working group will have to tackle tasks like conference planning. Still, she noted, most lawyer assistance programs are small entities, so the attorneys who work in those programs are used to handling a lot of different duties.

“Who knows what the future holds,” Harrell said, “but right now, it feels like it’s still working for us.”

lefstein-norm-mug Lefstein

Even with the reduction and readjustments, Norman Lefstein, dean emeritus of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, noted the ABA is still the largest legal organization in the country. It may never get back to its previous membership levels or financial standing, but it continues to have a broad constituency of lawyers.

Lefstein has been a member and leader on the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID) since the 1970s. Like others, Lefstein’s group is watching long-time staff members depart and take with them experience and institutional knowledge. Short-term, he is anticipating some hiccups, but in the long-term, he believes things will be just fine.

Also, Lefstein does not foresee the ABA relinquishing its voice. Echoing Metzel, he pointed out his committee, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, legal aid attorneys and other practitioners work together to study issues and offer reports, policy and resolutions. From there, the awareness of an issue grows among the local benches and bars around the country.

“I think (the ABA) has a clout that no other organization has,” Lefstein said.•

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