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The ABA Makes A Play for Solos, but Should Solos Play With the ABA?

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Update [7/22/2010] – I’ve spoken with some people about this post and I want to clarify that I was speaking about the ABA as an organization, and not about the staff, the section leaders or the people in the publications department.  The folks who edited the Social Media for Lawyers book did amazing work, Jennifer Rose keeps solosez running as well as it does, and the ABA Journal staff who run the ABA Blawg Contests have been extremely helpful to me and to this site, and I do not want to come across as ungrateful even though I do believe that I also bring value to the ABA.

At the same time, I know that my readers look to me for my views on these issues, and I feel that I need to be forthright, even if it means risking some of the benefits that I receive from working with the ABA in what I’ve always viewed as a mutually symbiotic relationship.  And in that regard, I must confess  there’s something about the ABA as an organization – and perhaps it’s just the nature of bureaucracy itself – that makes me question the value of joining.   Moreover,  if the ABA (again, the organization, not the staff) is going to hold itself out as representing the interests of all lawyers, it needs to prove itself by taking policy positions that support solos, as well as just providing benefits  Indeed, maybe with an influx of solos, the ABA’s policies will evolve over time.  We’ll see.  In any event, with that as backdrop, here’s my post:

This month’s issue of the ABA Journal is reporting that the ABA is making a play for solos by reducing membership dues and increasing benefits.  So what if the ABA waited to make a full court press for solos until ABA membership in other sectors of the legal profession was on the decline?  After all, when it comes to resources for solos, more’s the merrier as far as I’m concerned.

And by my calculation, the ABA’s promised commitment should make solos very merry.   Even with a reduction in solos’ annual dues from an average of $250 to $150 (previously solos paid between $125 and $399 per year; dues are now reduced to a range of $100 to $225), the ABA will still have a total budget of $3,150,000 for solos, even if solo membership doesn’t increase beyond the seven percent of the 300,000 solo lawyers who currently belong to the ABA.  [Note: $3,150,000 = (7% x 300,000 solos) x ($150)]

The real question is:  how will the ABA use that $3 million?   In an effort to figure it all out, I broke down the list of  the ABA’s promised benefits for solos from the article (with my commentary):

Sponsorship of Solosez, a popular and absolutely invaluable 3500+ member solo listserve open to ABA and non-ABA members alike (in my view, the best thing the ABA has ever done!  But I’m certain that Solosez doesn’t cost $3 million a year to run, plus it has at least one private vendor sponsor)

GP Solo Magazine (a pretty good publication, but it’s comprised almost entirely of unpaid contributions.  Plus it’s also supported by ads, not just solo membership dues);

-A quarterly solo e-mail newsletter (I haven’t seen the newsletter, but if it’s like most e-newsletters that I do receive, it likely doesn’t contain any more content than is freely available on a variety of solo or LPM blogs, including this one);

–A new electronic publication, called Smart Soloing, available 8 times a year (again, most blogs like this one publish 8 times a month if not more and carry similar content);

–An e-book, entitled Smart Soloing: How to Build Your Practice (essentially, a compilation of ABA Journal articles on solo practice, so no real costs involved beyond compiling a bunch of PDF files.  Admittedly, my own book, Solo by Choice isn’t free – it costs $45 – but it’s a real book, not just a bundle of articles slapped together);

Smart Soloing School, a series of free web-based CLE programs for solo practitioners (The ABA claims that this 3 day virtual program has a sticker price of $1620, but it’s free to solos who are ABA members.  But what’s worse about this program than the inflated cost is the concept of soloing school , which is a shameless and unattributed knock-off of Solo Practice University Considering that SPU’s founder, Susan Cartier Liebel was in fact, an ABA Legal Rebel, she deserves better.);

–A new Solo Center that will give solos access to the ABA central website (Here, I’ll note that MyShingle.com has served as a solo center for seven and a half years, with resources galore, all free).

In addition, solo members, like all ABA members benefit from the various discounts on vendor services, ABA products, etc…

Still, even allocating 60% of solo dues (or $2 million) to general ABA overhead costs, lobbying, litigation and pro bono activities, frankly, I just don’t see how the programs described above total $1.0 million a year (I can tell you that I’ve spent a fraction of that in 7.5 years at MyShingle, and that includes web design, content generation and all of the other neat tools I’ve developed for the site).  Moreover, at a time when many solos are innovating by adopting free and low cost technology to keep their overhead low and rates manageable for clients, the ABA’s largesse – spending so much on so little – seems incredibly outdated.

[Update – added 7/20/10, 9:15] There’s another matter that solos need to consider in signing up for the ABA, which is whether the organization has the ability to represent solos’ unique interests as technology rocks our profession.  Again, to give credit where credit is due, the ABA has been effective in fending off efforts by the FTC to regulate lawyers.   But solos need more than that.  At a time when conflicts between fifty different state bar rules are creating uncertainty for solos practicing in different jurisdictions, and where archaic bonafide office rules raise obstacles to lawyers’ (particularly women) ability to open law firms, we need guidance from a central body and we need rules that facilitate rather than obstruct lawyers’ ability to launch law firms.  Is that going to be an ABA priority?  I’m not so sure.

As I said in all sincerity at the outset, regardless of motive, I’m genuinely gratified that the ABA is acknowledging that we solos count — so much so, that the ABA is willing to make a play for the solo market.  Moreover, there’s no doubt that the ABA brings enormous resources to bear – more than individual bar associations or websites (like this one) can replicate.  What solos need to decide is whether  to play with the ABA.   Will the ABA deliver the value it promises —  not just now, but in the future when embracing solos may no longer be as economically or politically desirable?  More importantly, will the ABA not only provide the unique services that solos need, but represent us on issues that matter to us?

I think that from my past posts, you know where I stand on that question of joining the ABA – not going to happen now, though I continue to re-evaluate my own decision, because I do believe that organizations can change.  But I’m eager to hear from you.  My comment section is open.

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