Buried in the back of a recent issue of one ABA Journal was the American Bar Association’s treasurer’s report. ABA members should review that report because the association is preparing the ground for a dues increase.

First, the ABA should be commended for its openness with its members in presenting the association’s finances. The financial report shows that while the association has a healthy reserve at the moment, the members of dues-paying members continue to decline, non-dues revenue is relatively flat, revenues are down and the ABA is funding a current deficit out of reserves.

Why does the ABA’s membership continue to decline despite the increase in the number of attorneys? One possibility is that the organization has not done enough to make itself relevant to the practicing lawyer. The ABA continues to be perceived as the creature of white shoe law firms that cares little for the solo or small firm practitioner.

To be fair, the ABA does have a Solo/Small Firm Resource Center that purports to contain forms and provide a form where attorneys can write in and have their questions answered on a range of topics. It also contains sample articles from the different sections. The ABA has also experimented with dues programs to provide new solo/small firm attorneys with a dues break. Unfortunately, these efforts are hamstrung by a nickel and dime attitude towards members.

The ABA continues to push its publications and provide a small break in publications and CLE program cost as a “member benefit.” For example, although the Resource Center contains what is described as a “forms bank,” clicking on the forms bank leads to various ABA publications priced at $15 to $39. Why become a member if one must continue to pay to obtain the benefits of membership?

The same goes for the sections. Although section membership is the vehicle by which members are exposed to specialty areas within the ABA, each section carries an additional fee. So a basic membership does not entitle a solo or small firm practitioner to much beyond the ABA Journal, the discounts on merchandise and services from a handful of corporate partners, and a small discount on ABA CLE programs, publications, and forms.

It is small wonder that as the number of lawyers increase, the number of ABA members decrease, since the membership fee does not appear to be a good value proposition in the minds of many attorneys. It makes no sense to make a bad value proposition even worse by increasing member dues.

The ABA needs to look at strategies to increase membership instead of simply raising dues on a declining membership. The organization has some time and reserves to examine itself to improve its value proposition to potential members. That self-examination should include determining exactly what the average member receives in value for the dues dollar. The ABA needs to begin this self-examination now and finish it quickly. The reserves are not going to last forever, and membership declines will accelerate as dues increases make the ABA value proposition worse and worse.