ABA Annual Meeting

The ABA should embrace change and not be 'left in the dust,' executive director says

Jack Rives

Executive Director Jack Rives

In a speech to the ABA’s House of Delegates at its annual meeting in San Francisco on Monday, Executive Director Jack Rives talked about daunting realities of contraction and wide-ranging possibilities for growth as the association faces challenges in providing enough value to members to attract and keep them.

Rives pressed the need for the ABA to become more entrepreneurial in its non-dues revenue efforts.The organization will also need to entertain new ways to gain and keep members at a time when numbers are dropping, largely from a failure to attract new members when they’re in law school.

“The ABA does not want to be left in the dust,” Rives said. “We don’t want to become a vestige of history, when people are going to wonder, ‘What happened to the American Bar Association?’”

The decline in membership is not unique to the ABA, he said, noting a significant drop in the American Medical Association’s membership over the years.

Rives also contrasted examples of major entities that died off when they failed to adapt to change and those which were able to weather it.

The big failures:

• Kodak, which 40 years ago got the first patent on a digital camera: The company’s leadership thought it not worth pursuing, and it filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

• Blockbuster, whose business of renting VHS and DVD movies peaked in 2004: Its owners failed to adapt their business model after the advent of Netflix. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

The successful adaptors:

• Western Union was for many years in the business of sending telegrams, but 10 years ago, the company switched to money transfers and is successful.

• National Geographic saw difficulties coming for its magazine and adapted with an online presence and cable television channels.

“We need to embrace change,” Rives said.

Rives also emphasized new ventures by the ABA, and some great money-saving benefits for ABA members. Among these was ABA Leverage, a complimentary service for members in which the association’s meetings and travel department can negotiate hotel rates for bookings of 10 or more rooms. Rives said one law firm saved $137,000 on two meetings negotiated by the ABA, and a bar association saved $1 million on four meetings. For law student members, there is a $250 discount off a bar-exam prep service. The ABA is also now offering various insurance plans to members, their families and staff.

Rives said the association knows what needs to be done and should not hesitate to take the necessary action.

“Now is the time, carpe diem, seize the day,” he said in conclusion.

On Tuesday, ABA Treasurer G. Nicholas Casey Jr. told the House of Delegates that the ABA will need to make more spending cuts. He said that “2017 is going to be tough, 2018 will be our year of reckoning” so “let’s aim for a brighter day. I think it’s 2019.”

After going through details of ways expenses might be trimmed, Casey said, “I really do appreciate Jack’s clear, clear message and interest in increasing revenues from not just one or two sources but from multiple sources across the way. We need revenues, we can’t cut our way into success.”

Follow along with our full coverage of the 2016 ABA Annual Meeting.

Updated Aug. 9 to add Casey’s comments.

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