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Strength In Numbers

Initiative Aims to Increase ABA Membership by 25 Percent

Posted Jan 25, 2005 6:27 AM CDT
By James Podgers

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The association is in the early stages of planning a major initiative to produce significant membership increases over the next several years.

ABA leaders say they want the initiative to carry out the association’s mission in a way that responds to the priorities of U.S. lawyers.

“It’s important for the ABA to represent the legal profession as the umbrella organization addressing issues facing the profession and the justice system in this country,” says association President Robert J. Grey Jr. of Richmond, Va. “It’s always important not to become complacent and to challenge yourself to always be better.”

Grey, who has emphasized membership growth, says he would like to consider a target of 500,000 members by 2010.

Such an increase would represent a 25 percent increase over the ABA’s current membership—a notable jump during an era when membership in volunteer organizations has generally been on a downward slide.

At the end of the ABA’s 2003-04 fiscal year on Aug. 31, membership totaled 405,348, including 345,213 lawyers, 50,738 law students and 9,397 associates. That represents a total increase of just 263 members—including 74 lawyers—but ABA leaders say that, all things considered, they’re pleased even with a marginal increase.

“Association membership nationally is on a downward trend, and we’ve been able to hold our own in that environment,” says Maury B. Poscover of St. Louis, who chairs the ABA Standing Committee on Membership.

It is even more remarkable that the ABA’s membership increases came at the end of a year in which membership dues went up for the first time since 1999, Poscover says. “It has had some impact,” he says. “Dues increases historically result in some members not renewing.”

Membership among lawyers in practice at least six years dropped by 7,995, to 203,848. Those reductions were offset, however, by increases among lawyers with five or fewer years in practice, an important source of long-term membership growth.

Like their colleagues at other associations, ABA officials track membership as a key indicator of the organization’s health. “Membership is the engine that drives the whole train,” says Poscover.

In financial terms, for instance, ABA dues produced some $63 million—70 percent of the ABA’s $90 million in revenue for general operations in 2003-04. The primary nondues sources of general revenue includes such things as advertising in publications, CLE programming, and sales of books and other products. (The sections and divisions charge separate membership dues.)

Dues Deliberations

While ABA dues income in 2003-04 increased by some $7 million, that was about $2 million short of original budget projections. That was one of several factors that led the Board of Governors to trim ABA spending in the spring. The fiscal year actually ended with a surplus of some $800,000 on revenue of some $90 million. The general operations budget for 2004-05 projects that both revenues and expenditures will total some $91.8 million.

Treasurer Allan J. Joseph of San Francisco says the ABA is “a vibrant association continuing to go forward. We’ve been ahead of the curve, and we’re trying to project where we are going.”

At the same time, he says, it’s not too early to start considering what should happen at the end of the current dues cycle in 2006. One alternative, as he sees it, would be to maintain the emphasis on holding down costs with the possibility of putting off possible dues increases for another year or two. Another would be to follow a more traditional growth pattern with a dues increase possible in 2006. Either approach would be appropriate, he says. “What would be inappropriate would be to not consider the options.”

Poscover says members take into account what they get from the association as well as what it costs. “Our members are willing to pay if there is value,” he says, “and that’s what we have to provide. That is the single overriding principle of membership.”

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