When longtime Maryland State Bar Association executive director Paul Carlin announced earlier this year that he planned to retire from the position, bar association leaders and members said it became inevitable that his departure would mark a time of transition for the organization.
Now that Victor Velazquez, Carlin’s successor, has taken the reins, priorities for the new year have begun to take shape. Chief among those, Velazquez said, will be considering new ways the MSBA can stay relevant to members, as attorneys today have a wealth of opportunities to connect with fellow members of the legal community through blogs, social media and other means of networking beyond traditional professional associations.
“There’s a general sense that modernizing the approach of the bar is going to be one of the priorities, modernizing how we connect to members and convey information,” he said. “The reality is that attorneys are like every other demographic and constituency out there — their interests have to be addressed, and we have to connect with them in ways that are different from how we did 25 years ago.”
Velazquez started in his role several weeks ago working side-by-side with Carlin, who will formally step down at the end of the year. While Velazquez said it’s too soon to name specific initiatives the MSBA may pursue moving forward, he plans to focus on ensuring the bar association fulfills its duty as a statewide organization and doesn’t cater only to lawyers in the Baltimore and Washington metro areas.
“It’s going to be more than just holding meetings in different parts of the state — there has to be a virtual means of connecting too,” Velazquez said. “Every attorney who resides and works in Maryland has to feel like the MSBA is an organization they need to be affiliated with.”
Launching an app that could be used to communicate with members rather than relying on email is one example of a technological shift that members might welcome, said Scott MacMullan, an Annapolis solo practitioner and active MSBA member who serves on several committees.
“People still think email is the best way to reach people, but as technology shifts, it’s becoming more and more social media and different technologies are a better way to reach people,” said MacMullan, who also writes for The Daily Record’s Generation J.D. young lawyers blog. “When you have a 100-year-old organization like the Maryland State Bar Association, there’s a lot of entrenched interests. People don’t want to take risks. I think we need to take, not huge risks, but try to do some things differently and create some value.”
Whether or not an app is the best way to reach attorneys, he added, it’s an example of a change that would demonstrate to new and potential members that the organization is willing to innovate and implement new ideas.
By adopting the mindset of a startup company, where some projects fail and are quickly abandoned while others result in long-lasting change, the bar association could better serve attorneys, MacMullan said.
“The problem with lawyers is that lawyers are scared to make mistakes,” he said. “We need to foster an association where it’s OK for us to try something different.”
Striking a balance
Carlin, who witnessed significant changes in the legal industry during his more than three decades as MSBA executive director, noted that one of the biggest challenges facing his successor would be keeping membership numbers up despite a decrease in law school enrollment.
It’s a dilemma common to membership organizations across different professions, Velazquez said, adding that the MSBA needs to be cognizant of what younger, millennial lawyers are looking to get out of membership without forgetting that the 25,000 members of the association represent a broad range of needs and interests.
“What it means to be an effective and successful bar is an evolving definition,” he said. “Millennials especially are not necessarily just interested in the typical networking events and participating in committees; they want to engage differently and hear about things differently. … I think young lawyers are clearly going to be part of the story, but relevancy to the membership is a spectrum.”
Montgomery County Circuit Judge Harry Storm, the MSBA’s president, said the bar is actively working to improve membership among various constituencies.
“We’re going to be having some events to target some of the government lawyers who are not members — people in state’s attorney offices and county attorney offices,” Storm said. “There are some judges who aren’t members, so we’re going to have several events that will be focused on that group. I also hope to focus an effort on some of the law professors who aren’t members, as well.”
Storm said the bar now has a “capture rate” of about 67 percent of Maryland lawyers.
“It’s high for a voluntary bar, but it also means there are 33 percent who are not members,” he said.
The challenge is not only to attract new members, but also to encourage active participation among the existing membership. Even as lawyers increasingly interact online and through social media, the bar still provides a unique value by helping them forge more meaningful connections with fellow legal professionals than they would be able to over a tweet or blog post, MacMullan said.
“There’s a lot of people in the bar association that use it for a bio line. The bar association shouldn’t be a bio line. There has to be more than the prestigious name,” he said. “Now that we can use social media to meet people and build relationships, why do you need the bar association, especially for newer and younger attorneys? Hopefully, it’s a different way to talk to people in person and make deeper connections.”