When Ken Shear decided to apply to become the next Philadelphia Bar Association’s executive director, he wanted the job because the association was a leader in the city and influential in the running of the city’s civic affairs. As Shear announced his upcoming retirement after serving the association for almost 36 years Thursday, his colleagues said that it is largely because of Shear that the association has indeed had such influence and indeed been such a leader. Shear will retire in 2013.

Ben Picker, a past chancellor of the association and senior counsel with Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, said that Shear always pushed chancellors with his “constructive judgment and his good humor,” including on adopting policies that advanced the public interest and public service, but that he always yielded to chancellors because they speak for the organization.

Shear helped move the association from a trade organization providing such services like insurance to an organization that gives back to the community, Picker said. Those initiatives include advancing the role of women and other minorities in the legal profession and starting several pro bono projects that eventually spun off to become full-fledged legal services organizations like the Support Center for Child Advocates and the SeniorLAW Center, Picker said.

The bar association has been an “incubator” for several of the city’s nonprofits dedicated to providing civil legal aid, including Philly VIP, the Homeless Advocacy Project and Community Legal Services, Shear said.

“We used to say it was the nest and then we’d throw you out of the nest and say, ‘Go fly,’” Shear said.

The association’s delivery of legal services committee, which is a forum on issues involving the public interest and addressing the legal rights of disadvantaged populations, has been one part of why Philadelphia has a flourishing public-interest sector, Shear said.

The committee started as a “committee where older white men used to sit around and bitch that CLS was taking their clients,” Shear said. “We had to convince them, first of all, they can’t pay your fees anyhow.”

Roseanne Lucianek, director of the division for bar services at the American Bar Association, said that the Philadelphia Bar Association is a leader among the country’s bar associations, in part because of Shear.

“The bar association has a reputation for public service and legal services to the poor,” Lucianek said. “It also has a reputation [because] so many metro areas have lost their financial areas and their law firms have moved out to the suburbs and so that the core city is not as vital as it once was. That’s not the case in [Philadelphia.] There’s still a lot of law firm investment and leadership in the bar association and the Philly bar … sees itself as a civic player in the city’s government, in the city’s life, and I think that … distinguishes it, from other metro bar associations that don’t have the same kind of support from the law firms and their communities.”

Lucianek met Shear in 1979 because her boss at the time wanted her to meet Shear, and Shear and Lucianek’s boss shared a passion for baseball and hot dogs.

Shear’s reputation is that he is outspoken, always has questions, and he is one of the deans among bar executives, Lucianek said.

Despite Shear’s length of time in the business as a bar executive, “he hasn’t gotten old in the job, old in his thinking,” Lucianek said.

Kay Sim, executive director of the Houston Bar Association, got to know Shear as part of the National Association of Bar Executives, and “I can’t think of a better example of a true professional. I have always counted him as a friend and a mentor. … What I found was his guidance and information and counsel was always right.”

Shear said that Sim and he grew up as bar executives together because they started their jobs within a year of each other.

Shear said that he has always just been part of a team or a network — making a comment or two that helped in some way to move things along — that accomplished the association’s successes, including the fostering of legal services to help Philadelphians.

Shear likened his role to the title a former secretary of state gave to his memoir, “Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department.”

Others say that Shear’s role has been much larger.

Shear is the “cornerstone” of the association, Picker said. Abraham C. Reich, another former chancellor and co-chair of Fox Rothschild, said that Shear has been the fabric of the bar association.

As a chancellor, “he was like your right hand. Kenny was there,” Reich said. “There wasn’t a major issue you considered or dealt with that wasn’t run by Ken. … He was smart, had great judgment, wonderful people and political skills and he had a sense of history.”

The chancellor of the bar association is the spokesman or the spokeswoman of the organization, Shear said, and the role of the executive is to make sure that the chancellor does not find himself or herself in his or her last months wondering, “‘Why the hell did I do this?’”

Every year Shear and other senior staff sit down with the chancellors during the summer before they start their year in leadership to dive into their minds about the things they would like to do, why they decided to run for chancellor, and to talk about themselves for one day.

What comes from those retreats, Shear said, is an agenda on adjusting staff to accommodate the chancellors’ goals, knowledge of what programming will look like for the upcoming year and sunsetting programs that are “not that terrific anymore.”

Running a bar association isn’t an easy job, especially at times when there is friction between factions at the bar, Reich said, but Shear made sure that “regardless of your area of practice or your politics … the bar was a collegial forum for expressing issues.”

What Reich said he’ll miss the most about Shear is how he will look impishly at Reich and “force me into belly laughs.”

When Shear leaves the association at the end of 2013 he will retire just after his 37th anniversary of his hiring date on December 26, 1976. The bar association said in a news release that his tenure constitutes nearly 18 percent of the life of the 210-year-old association. Shear will stay at the bar association half-time in 2014 as a consultant working to provide support during the transition with his successor.

When Shear started at the bar association, he said that he didn’t have access to the association’s corporate memory in a transition with his predecessor. He recalls then when he was six months in his directorship that he was sitting outside on a warm spring day in his chaise lounge and he wondered to himself, “What have you done?”

Some of the staff at the time were disappointed to not have gotten Shear’s job, but most of all he said there was nobody to grab him, tell him to straighten up and “say, ‘You got to do this thing.’”

While Shear said he has no problem with his successor saying in reaction to the practices of the association, “‘That is the stupidest idea I ever heard,’” he would like to be able to explain why those practices have developed.

Shear attended Temple University both for his master’s degree in political science and for his undergraduate education. His first job was as an analyst in the managing director’s office for the city of Philadelphia, where one of the things he worked on was administering grants related to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Street Act of 1968.

“I got a crash course in various components of the justice system,” Shear said. “I found myself working with people like late Frank J. Montemuro,” then the administrative judge of family court. Shear was then recruited to become the assistant director of what is now the Citizens Crime Commission of Delaware Valley.

Then along came the announcement that the Philadelphia Bar Association was looking for an executive director. The Legal arrived every day at the crime commission, and Shear said that he saw something about the bar association practically every day. While Shear was not trained as a lawyer, Shear said that his retort was that a hospital administrator did not have to be a cardiologist in order to be a good executive for a hospital.

There were 6,400 members on the rolls when Shear joined the association, and now there are over 13,000. Shear has shepherded the organization as it has grown its staff from a little over a half-dozen to over two dozen and as the organization has moved two times.

Shear said his successor will have to grapple with retaining membership in an era in when time is limited for lawyers because of the burden of the billable hour and in a time in which decisions by law firms are not necessarily being made in Philadelphia.

“We’re in a very fierce competitive environment for individuals’ time,” Shear said. “That’s a tough one. What that portends: Who will we have becoming the leaders of this association? Who will step up? Who will be the individuals … dedicated to the association, all with their own ideas, all with the intent of the association at heart … bringing them in making them kings and queens for a day?”

Shear said his successor also will need “to move the store to where the customers are,” which means getting the association’s offices to the west side of City Hall.

Another challenge is that the membership dues have never covered in entirety the association’s operating budget of close to $5 million, Shear said, and non-dues revenues have to be developed more and more to keep the organization running and helping in the sphere of public affairs.

Shear has always been a Pennsylvanian except for two years as a child when his father moved his family to Baltimore because of a job. Shear said he was “born and dragged up in Philadelphia.”

He has been married 43 years to Suzanne Shear (“she’s my Susie”), an occupational therapist. “She’s had a lot of on-the-job therapy with me,” Shear said. Both of their children are teachers, and the Shears live in the same house in Abington, Pa., they have lived in for 40 years. Shear has two grandchildren, and he said his retirement will allow him to spend more time with them. As well, there are books to be read, walks to be taken and naps to be taken, Shear said.

“He has left a legacy of achievement that few executives ever could rival,” Francis P. Devine III, a former chancellor and with Pepper Hamilton, said in an email. “While Philadelphia’s law firms mine their talent to discover gems, Ken Shear polished those gems into diamonds. We wish him all the contentment, joy and success more free time can afford him.”

Amaris Elliott-Engel can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or aelliott-engel@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisTLI.