American Bar Association in Chicago. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

It’s about to cost less to be a member of the American Bar Association.

The ABA House of Delegates on Monday voted to adopt a simpler and less-expensive schedule of membership fees in an effort to revitalize the association’s long-declining membership rates.

The new dues schedule, which comes into effect in 2020, will roughly cut in half the cost of membership for lawyers with less than five years’ experience and will lower the cost for other members by about $100.

The association has lost about 56,000 dues-paying lawyers in the last 10 years, according to the ABA, and currently fewer than 200,000 members actually pay dues. The ABA’s total membership is expected to be above 400,000 for fiscal 2018. There are some 1.3 million lawyers in America, the ABA says.

The board of governors was told in June that membership shrank about 4 percent from 2017 to 2018, resulting in about $1.5 million in lost revenue. Without changes to its dues structure, the ABA projects it will generate about $15 million less in annual dues by 2024, according to a June memo from the ABA’s Standing Committee on Membership.

According to ABA projections, the dues changes will lead to a short-term revenue drop that will be made up by a higher growth rate in membership by 2024. Without the change, the ABA projects 155,766 members by 2024. That figure would be about 73 percent higher, 268,812, under the new structure.

The vote in Chicago at the ABA annual meeting followed a round of speeches that framed the changes as a historic occasion to turn around an organization that is mired in financial difficulty.

ABA executive director Jack Rives compared the association to a single home that withstood Hurricane Ike in 2008 because its owners planned ahead and built the home on 19-foot stilts. He said the ABA’s finances were not facing a coming storm because, “the storm is already here.”

“The question is: Do we have the courage to make the tough decisions that will enable us to weather the storm?” Rives said. “My commitment to you is we will not merely survive; we will thrive. We are truly at an inflection point for the profession and our association.”

Rives said the association would need to do more than simply revamp its fees in order to attract new members and to be financially healthy. Toward that latter point, Rives said the ABA’s general budget has decreased $25 million since 2014—a 22 percent reduction. This year, the association also laid off 50 employees and now has fewer staff members than at any point since 1996, Rives said.

“We know we have issues. We know there are problems. We have studied these; analyzed these; and we know we have solutions,” Rives said Monday. “There’s no doubt we have to reverse trends. We have to recruit and retain more dues-paying loyal members.”

Under the proposal, which would take effect in September 2019:

  • Lawyers with less than five years of experience would pay $75, down from $146 to $250, depending on the year. (Those admitted to the bar for a year or less currently receive membership for free, and solo practitioners, judges, government attorneys and public interest lawyers also pay less.)
  • Lawyers who have been admitted to the bar between five and 10 years would pay $150, while those with between 10 and 15 years of experience would pay $250. Those groups now pay between $291 and $467 annually.
  • Lawyers with between 15 and 20 years of experience would pay $350, while those with 20 or more years of experience would pay $450. Both groups now pay $467.

Reporting from Karen Sloan contributed to this report.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the the ABA’s projected revenue decline. It has been updated to reflect the current projection.