If you cut it, will they come?
That's what the American Bar Association is asking when it comes to adding solo attorneys to its membership ranks. Last month, the ABA agreed on a radical shake-up of its membership dues in an effort to get more representation from the segment of the bar that is most acutely feeling the effects of a bad economy.
Under a structure that will take effect this summer with membership renewals, solo attorneys will receive discounts of up to 50 percent, depending on the amount of time they have been members of the bar.
"It's a dramatic and positive step toward a commitment to being sensitive to the broad membership," said Connecticut Bar Association (CBA) President Francis J. Brady, a member of the ABA's House of Delegates who voted in favor of the discount. "This is a revenue reducer in the short term, but the ABA wants to expand their membership base to get feedback from solos. If the ABA draws enough of them, it will be a revenue enhancer."
But the news of the discount didn't overwhelm many solo attorneys in Connecticut contacted last week, leaving open the question of how successful the ABA incentives will be.
"I don't know that a 50 percent discount will have that big of an impact" on solos deciding to join the ABA, said Gregory J. Cava, a commercial real estate attorney in Roxbury who is not an ABA member. "But the discount shows you that the economy's effect on solos is pretty widespread."
Other ABA members have historically received a discount on membership, including judges, government and legal services lawyers and those in the military. The new dues structure provides a 25 percent discount for that group.
But this is the first time that a discount has been granted to a segment of lawyers who are actively running their own businesses. Of the 397,000 ABA members, only 6 percent are solo attorneys, according to ABA studies.
"This is quite simply a marketing strategy to price the ABA membership more competitively for solos," said Stephen Curley, a commercial litigator in Stamford who is a member of both the CBA and ABA House of Delegates. Curley also voted in favor of the dues discount.
"It's unprecedented," Curley said. "When the dues questions came up before the House of Delegates in the past, it was always about, how do we raise dues? This changes the dynamic of the dues debate for the foreseeable future."
The ABA's current dues structure called for $10 to $100 increases every year for membership; the longer lawyers were members, the more they paid. The dues maxed out at $399 for lawyers who were ABA members for 10 or more years.
The new dues structure does not include yearly increases for solo attorneys. They are instead covered by a fixed price for a period of years. For example, under the new fee structure, solos will pay $145 for membership in their sixth through ninth years of practice; under the current fee structure, solo attorneys with nine years of experience pay annual dues of $299.
The biggest dollar discount will be for solos in their 10th year of practice and beyond. The new rate will be $225, for a $174 savings.
Under both structures, ABA membership is free for all lawyers who have been admitted to the bar for less than a year.
Curley was on the standing committee on membership until 2008, and he said earlier versions of the dues proposal included discounts for all lawyers, but the committee ultimately agreed to help only solo members of the private bar at this point.
"The ABA had reached out and heard that the single biggest complaint that non-member solo attorneys have is the cost associated with membership," said Curley.
Lawyers in larger firms get a break because the firm picks up the tab for bar association memberships.
"Solos have a tight operating budget and I haven't seen the ABA as a huge value for the money," said Michael J. Keenan, a Glastonbury solo attorney with a trust and estate and elder law practice. "I would at least consider joining now, but for a solo, it's tough to join the local bars and the national groups."
But it's more than just membership dues for some solo attorneys. Cava declined to renew his ABA membership last summer because of philosophical differences with the ABA's leadership. He has bristled at the ABA's supportive stance of multi-jurisdictional practice rules, which open up legal marketplaces to those licensed elsewhere. That topic has been a sore subject among lawyers, especially those in real estate who fear that out-of-state practitioners will take away their business.
Cava said ABA representatives reached out to him last year when he didn't renew his membership, which he had held since 1982.
"The last thing you want to do is be a member of any organization that is potentially negatively affecting your practice," Cava said. Even with the discount for solos, he said, "For the upcoming year, I don't see me going back to it."
Before Renee C. Berman launched her solo practice in Hamden in 2007, she worked for a firm that picked up all of her professional dues. But priorities change when that money comes out of a solo's pocket.
"I dropped the [ABA] membership because I wasn't using it," Berman said. "As a solo, it's all about what is in my budget and what is important to me. I'd rather be part of the local bar and local organizations because that's where you're going to build your business."
Curley, the Stamford solo, raised the possibility that a decrease in ABA membership dues could create a competition for membership dollars between national and local bar associations.
Seeing the ABA take such drastic measures "certainly gives food for thought" to leaders of state and local bar associations, he added.
CBA membership dues range from $85 for all lawyers who are new to the bar to $270 for lawyers who were admitted to the bar before July 2000. The CBA, which has about 10,000 members, is "not actively considering" a discount in dues, Brady said.
ABA President Carolyn B. Lamm said the national organization has "always viewed ourselves as complementary to state and local bars" and therefore doesn't anticipate any competition for membership. She noted that the ABA offers networking and skills enhancement programs on a national level in conjunction with state bar associations.
"The ABA is simply seeking to making itself more accessible so that lawyers can gain the advantages of professional associations at all levels," Lamm said.
Several solo attorneys doubted that lawyers, if forced to choose, would pick membership in a national organization over a statewide organization, mainly because they'd miss out on local networking benefits.
Keenan, the Glastonbury solo, said, "I would think the client would be more impacted by seeing that a lawyer has a [CBA] membership than an [ABA] membership because the perception is that the lawyer is more attuned to what's going on in Connecticut."