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

 

The American Bar Association is planning to significantly reduce its annual dues in hopes of boosting the number of paying members, which has been declining for decades.

Lawyers with fewer than 10 years on the job would pay half as much or even less under the proposal, dubbed OneABA, while most experienced lawyers would see their annual dues whittled down by $100 or more. Membership revenue is the organization’s single largest source of funding, and shrinking membership is imperiling its future, according to internal ABA memos that lay out the reasons for the dues overhaul.

“Our internal data and market research clearly show that the ABA is on a trend line that will render it irrelevant and fiscally unviable,” according to a June 5 memo to the ABA’s board of governors by deputy executive director James Dimos and Tracy Giles, the chair of the ABA’s standing committee on membership. “As a result, we believe that a new membership model is the most practical first step that the association can take to secure its future.”

Without changes to its dues structure, the ABA projects that it will generate about $15 million less in annual dues by 2024, according to the memo.


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The ABA’s decline in membership is part of a larger trend among professional organizations, Dimos said in an interview Monday. “The reasons for people joining professional associations—whether it’s access to specialized information or networking—those are being supplanted if you will by the internet and LinkedIn,” he said.

The ABA, which is a voluntary bar, also faces competition from local and state lawyer groups as well as specialized and affinity bar organizations, Dimos added.

The ABA has about 424,000 members, but only 194,448—or 46 percent—are dues payers, according to a June presentation before the board of governors. (Law students can join at no cost.) The number of dues-paying lawyer members has decreased for the past decade, falling nearly 4 percent in the last year. That figure stood at under 165,000 last December. There are 1.3 million active lawyers in the United States, according to the ABA, which means that fewer than 13 percent of the country’s practicing attorneys are now paying members of the national group.

The shrinking number of paying members resulted in a nearly $1.5 million revenue decline between 2017 and 2018, according to the June board presentation.

The ABA has been examining its membership model for more than a year with an eye to lowering costs and simplifying its complex, a la carte structure. There are currently 157 different dues categories, Dimos said. The ABA hired Chicago-based business strategy and marketing firm Avenue to test the proposed membership model and develop projections.

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

  • Lawyers with fewer 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 $425. Both groups now pay $467.

Members would still need to pay additional fees to join different ABA sections, although the membership committee is weighing whether to include membership in one or two general interest sections, according to Dimos.

Those changes would initially decrease dues revenue, according to ABA projections. But the projected membership growth that would come with lower dues would by 2024 surpass the revenue projections associated with retaining the current dues structure. If the ABA makes no change, it will have a projected 155,766 members by 2024. That figure would be 268,812—or nearly 73 percent more—according to projections for the proposed new dues structure.

In additional to lower dues, the ABA is hoping that a library of free CLE courses and “more curated content” will help draw in new members, Dimos said. The organization is also due to unveil a new website in the coming weeks.

The board of governors is scheduled to consider the proposal on Aug. 3. Should it sign off, the ABA’s House of Delegates will vote on it later that week.

The ABA last studied its membership model in 2010, at which time the organization reduced dues for judges, solo practitioners and government attorneys. But it never enacted a second phase of proposed changes, Dimos said.

“The association missed its opportunity in 2010 to make meaningful change and, while it must be prudent, that cannot happen again,” reads the June memo. “Otherwise, the ABA and the entities that are part of it will wither on the vine.”

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