The following excerpt appears in the New York Law Journal. The original article can be found here:
Your bar association needs to make more money. What do you do?
A. Raise the price of events by $5 or $10. No one will notice.
B. Add hidden surcharges. After all, who decides not to go to a Broadway play once they see the final price?
C. Charge more for membership.
D. Make almost all events free.
If you guessed D, you are right! But be honest, you didn’t guess D because that’s counterintuitive.
Yet, that’s exactly the strategy of LeGaL, the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York, and it’s working. Bar leaders decided not to charge for most of its events and nearly tripled revenue over eight years. They went even further than that, making sure that those who engaged with the association would want to come back but not feel an obligation to join.
Actually, the. 500-member group has hardly any newly admitted attorneys, Executive Director Eric Lesh said. The concept is so novel that it in some ways redefines what it means to be a bar association. “I see us getting to a point in 20 years where we don’t have dues-paying members at all,” he said.
With baby boomers retiring and millennial lawyers less likely to join bar associations, bar leaders around New York are looking for ways to transform. And what’s worked for the LGBT bar is de-emphasizing financial support from lawyers in favor of urging corporate sponsors to spend more.
“We’ve tried models where we charge for things and it depresses turnout,” Lesh said. “We want as many folks to feel they’re a part of LeGaL, or benefit from the work LeGaL does, without having to be dues-paying members.”
Lesh noted that such this concept might not make sense for much larger bar associations with budgets that dwarf his own. As a matter of fact, the 25,000-member New York City Bar Association is doing the opposite, putting an even greater emphasis on belonging but offering certain members something else free instead. Other major bar associations around the country are experimenting with ways to make membership more valuable.
LeGaL has the numbers to prove what may seem obvious: More lawyers come to its events when they are free. In 2017, 21 people signed up to be part of its delegation to the New York City Pride parade. In 2019, that number increased tenfold to 219. In 2017, the organization received 105 RSVPs to the Pride event it sponsored with the affinity group at Proskauer Rose but that number shot up to 365 in 2019.
As participation rose, corporate sponsorship shot up too. In 2017, sponsors of the group’s annual dinner — its main fundraising event — were labeled silver if they contributed $5,000, gold if they donated $7,500 and platinum if they gave $12,000. But in 2019, the bar set each of those levels $2,500 to $3,000 higher, increasing its net profit from the dinner by $50,000 to $365,000. The association’s overall revenue almost tripled between 2009 and 2017 from $146,297 to $418,731.
Craig Convissar, 35, an associate at Katten Muchin Rosenman, said his experience with LeGaL has been largely positive.
“LeGaL offers people easy ways to really involve themselves meaningfully with the LGBT legal community; a lot of people, especially in this political environment, are looking for this kind of outlet and so I think it’s important,” he said.
While he does also participate in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights committee of the city bar, he isn’t likely to join other bar groups.
“I think there’s a lot less motivation for me to pay for a membership in an organization that I don’t feel any particular strong identification with,” he said.
Sarah Filcher, vice president of LeGaL, thinks the organization’s emphasis on getting money from law firms and corporate sponsors — rather than millennial lawyers — is on target.
“A bar association feels like a luxury item for a lot of millennial lawyers,” she said. “I wish there was more support from the employers because I hear from a lot of lawyers my age that whatever they’re doing is out of pocket.”
Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of a series on the financial health of bar associations