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Falling far short of attendance expectations for the London half of its Millennial meeting, the American Bar Association leadership in Chicago has decided to make significant cut backs in some announced festivities — and to trust that those already having invested in the trip won’t notice. In a teleconference May 4, the ABA Board of Governors decided that pulling out of the overseas trip altogether would have been more expensive than going ahead with the plan to first meet in New York City July 6-12, then travel to London July 15-20, where members are to celebrate the origins of the United State’s legal system. However, to avert a financial crisis because of the low registration, the board empowered its executive committee to reduce costs, and, if necessary, to dip into a $1 million emergency fund created years ago for instances just like this. Treasurer Earle F. Lasseter, of Columbus, Ga., hopes that won’t be necessary. The eight-member executive committee, which includes ABA President William G. Paul and president-elect Martha W. Barnett, already has identified places that can be scaled back — including the most costly event, the President’s Reception to be held at the Tower of London. No decision has been made yet about cutting costs there. But at another event scheduled for Westminster Hall, by changing to the more intimate Queen’s Royal Gallery, Lasseter said he hopes to slash a $200,000 initial price to $24,000. In other instances, the committee members said they may have to be more selective with invitation only programs and charge for events that would otherwise be included in the registration fees. The committee was to meet by teleconference again Friday and in person Tuesday May 16 in Washington, D.C., to “take a hard look at the figures,” Lasseter said. Bar leaders realized there might be a financial crunch with this year’s meeting when registration figures fell well below what they were expected to be by the New Year, despite some robust registration activity when the London trip was first announced a couple years ago. Committee members say alarm bells rang when by March and April the sign-me-up calls just weren’t coming in. The five-day London portion of the meeting was expected to draw a minimum of 5,000 registrants, which is purported to be the ABA’s break-even point for such a major event. However, only about 3,000 members and guests have signed up so far. The attendance figures for the New York half of the annual meeting, on the other hand, seem in better shape with more than 5,080 already on the registration rolls. Numbers are far below the last time the ABA held a U.S.-London convention. In 1985, the organization planned for 9,000 registrants and flooded London streets with 10,430 – overwhelming the city’s transportation services, according to Baltimore lawyer Herbert J. Belgrad, an executive committee member and chair of the ABA’s Operations and Communications Committee. But Lasseter, who in 1996 as a member of the Board of Governors voted against going to London, said the ABA made a mistake banking on a similar response. “I think we made a miscalculation,” said Lasseter, who also attended the 1985 meeting and the previous one in 1971. The first ABA annual meeting to convene in London was in 1957. Lasseter attributed the lack of interest this year to a number of things, including the fact that the convention was moved up a month to July from August. He notes that people simply travel more these days and are not so easily impressed with foreign destinations. “A lot of people have been to London, so why go back,” he said. “Or, why pay a registration fee when you can go on your own.” Another drawback was the requirement forcing those going to London to also pay the New York fee, even if they decided to save money by not going to the Big Apple. Registration costs for ABA members before Dec. 1, were $850 for New York and London; and are up to $1,085 or a $1,200 on-site fee. The Chicago-based ABA, with more than 400,000 members and about an $88 million annual budget, does have a general safety net program in place. And in this case, because the board voted in 1996 not to draw convention resources from the ABA’s general revenue account, the executive committee may have to cover any debt with the emergency fund. Established in 1988, the board created the fund on the heels of an advertising shortfall at the ABA Journal, Lasseter said. Because of funding problems with the organization’s flagship publication in the mid-’80s, monies had to be skimmed from other budgets. “This is the first time we’ve ever had to consider using the money out of the safety net,” Lasseter said, adding that if the ABA has to use the safety net money, it won’t be “anywhere near the million dollars.” Lasseter and Belgrad also insist that despite possible budget shortfalls, the quality of the programs in London won’t be affected. “By all measures it will not only be an exciting meeting, but from a substantive point of view, a powerful meeting for the attendees,” said Belgrad, of Tydings & Rosenberg LLP. All promised programs will be delivered, he said, including presentations by distinguished visitors including nearly all the U.S. Supreme Court justices and an abundance of high-level British court officials and dignitaries. Noting that the budgets for the many ABA sections, which provide much of the programming, are unaffected by attendance figures, Belgrad added, “I do not think they will see any change of substance in the programming they registered for.” Ronald C. Smith, a professor at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School and liaison from the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section for London 2000, echoed Belgrad’s remarks. The Criminal Justice Section, which Smith will chair in 2001, has an $18,000 budget to mostly accommodate speakers. “There’s no indication at all that anybody’s going to be short a nickel,” he said. Smith, while certain the programming will not falter, understands the lack of interest. In addition to the expensive dual registration requirement and the fact that “London isn’t as remote as it was” in 1985, Smith theorizes the ABA may have scared potential travelers away with initial marketing efforts urging members to register early because as many as 11,000 were expected to attend. “There was an initial perception of a mob scene,” Smith said. “Why go there when everyone is elbowing each other … when you [and the family] could go at another time?” Lasseter and his colleagues, however, remain optimistic that late registrations will pull them through after all. Secretary Jack B. Middleton, of Manchester, N.H., is also holding out hope that this is just another case of lawyer procrastination. “I do know this,” he said. “Lawyers tend to sign up at the last minute; so it may very well be in the weeks ahead there will be a flood of registrations.”

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