Across the country, most state and local bar associations that are larger than New Haven’s, which has 1,400 members. But few, if any, have a more engaged, enthusiastic and effective leader than Executive Director Carolyn Breen Witt. That’s easy to conclude from her 15-year track record, and the fact that the National Association of Bar Executives has just elected her its president for the 2010-11 fiscal year. The NABE provides a forum for members to address their challenges together, and to share innovations and “best practices.”

Witt, a Greenwich native, graduated from the University of Virginia with undergraduate degrees in drama and medieval history. As a paralegal, she focused on federal complex litigation cases, capped by four years working for federal Judge Lawrence E. Walsh, in the Office of Independent Counsel during the Iran-Contra affair.

The New Haven Bar Association operates on a “shoestring” budget with two full-time and two part-time staffers. Witt says she’s benefited from the exchange of ideas with larger bar groups at NABE conferences, which convene a week before the American Bar Association annual and mid-year meetings. Last week she spoke with Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey.

LAW TRIBUNE: What will your duties be as president of the National Association of Bar Executives?

CAROLYN WITT: I’m a volunteer president, it’s a volunteer organization. So I work with the board of directors and our many section and committee chairs to develop the policies and programming that we bring to our membership of over 600 individual staff across the country. The objective is to really help promote professionalism within the organization, and to provide opportunities for people to grow in their jobs and better serve our bar members.

LAW TRIBUNE: How does the NABE help bar associations like New Haven’s?

WITT: As a small bar, we don’t have a lot of resources. I run on a shoestring budget. But we benefit from the ideas we pick up from larger state and regional bars across the country, and we’ve brought those ideas back, scaled them back, and that’s really what’s given us a lot of growth in the last 15 years. We’re learning from other peoples successes and applying them in a way that’s appropriate for our community.

LAW TRIBUNE: What are the ideas being circulated to make bar associations work better?

WITT: On a national level, when you put the senior staff of bar associations together in a room, we start to see trends. Some things that everybody’s dealing with are new lawyers and the recent direct impact on the economy for lawyers and law firms of all sizes. I think the way law is practiced is going to change in the next 10 years, and it’s up to bar associations to stay on top of that curve, so we can educate our members to what’s going on nationally. What goes on nationally and even internationally will eventually trickle down. Look abroad, with England and Australia and New Zealand, where accountants are getting involved in taking over law firms.

I’m in a unique situation because I work with a local bar. Fifty percent of our members are solo or small firms. The large firms have a totally different set of issues to deal with. The local bars can really get hands-on to help the new attorneys and local practitioners. Let’s face it, lawyers went to law school to be trained to think in a certain way, but they’re not trained business people. So a real opportunity for associations is to help provide some of that business support, through educational programming, or point them in the right direction for resources.

LAW TRIBUNE: Where are the biggest challenges in retaining bar association membership, with the big firms, or with solos and small firms?

WITT: We’ve had a little bit of drop-off for the last two years. I’ve seen it at both the large firm and small firm levels for different reasons. But both are economic. In the large firms, rather than have blanket [membership] for everyone, they’re only paying for people who really want to get involved. To me, that’s a shame, because many of these large firm associates only know the people within their firm. Being part of a local bar association allows them to expand their colleague base, to meet other people who practice in other areas. For the small firms and solos, we like to say now more than ever is when you need the association. [Membership] is a nominal cost when you consider that most attorneys get their business through cross referrals. Staying within the association, participating in networking opportunities and educational programs, maybe to re-tool or come up to speed in various areas of law where you may be lacking, now is the time to do that, during a downturn. It’s not the time to drop the local bar membership.

LAW TRIBUNE: Becoming a recluse in a recession is probably not the right approach.

WITT: Absolutely. What we’ve tried to do is provide opportunities for different people to get to know people in different settings, like our lunch with a judge program. Or get involved in a committee. Or get involved in any of the opportunities we provide. We have a probate bench-bar reception, for example, coming up [this] week, which will allow for trust, estate and probate attorneys to get together and meet both the old judges and some of the incoming judges, based on [the recent] election.

LAW TRIBUNE: The New Haven County Bar Association publication, “Marble Columns,” is both collegial and informative.

WITT: When it comes out late, people yell at us. It’s widely read.

LAW TRIBUNE: For years you’ve had a Superior Court clerk as a contributor, passing on the latest news.

WITT: [The bar association] prides itself with having a close working relationship with our local courts. We have an especially close relationship with the Superior Court, but we also have programs with probate and bankruptcy and [other] federal courts.