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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 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.

  • Carolyn, I guess I'm confused – you say “I think you know where I stand” on the question of “should we play with the ABA?” Obviously, judging from the tone of this and past posts on the ABA, you won't. But the new book you just wrote on social media was published by the ABA, and you'll be receiving royalty payments from the ABA – and you've also accepted invitations to speak, with reimbursement, at ABA-sponsored conferences. Clearly you've decided to play, at least to some extent.

  • I, for one, will be “playing”, but then again, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm a recent grad who was “awarded” a free first year membership to the ABA. I am required to pay the additional fees for specific group memberships but those fees were also reduced based on my solo practice status.

    There's no way of telling at this point whether I'll continue to play but I am grateful that at the exact time I'm starting to build my solo practice and career in general, I'm faced with an ABA who is at least attempting to meet some of the needs I have.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    Hi Tom!

    To be fair, in response to your question, I did go back in and amend my post (and noted the changes) to clarify that I don't intend to join the ABA now. But I posed my post as a question because I would like to see the issue of ABA membership debated rather than simply rant about the organization.

    Regarding your question of my book on social media and my participation in Tech Show (for two sessions), yes, I suppose I am getting a benefit from the ABA. But aside from the fact that I do not belong to the ABA, I have probably contributed as much to the ABA as others who are members.

    First, though I do get royalties from the book on social media, the ABA receives a huge benefit as well. Social media is a really hot topic for lawyers, and by writing a credible book on Social Media for the ABA complete with step by step guides and a full chapter on ethics analysis, the ABA can be first to market with a book on social media devoted exclusively to lawyers. I understand that West plans to publish a book as well – but the ABA has first mover advantage. Also, as you know, the ABA holds copyright to all of its publications, not the authors, which to me (as an author) is something enormous to give away (I hold the copyright to Solo by Choice, a non-ABA book).

    As for speaking at Tech Show, I am honestly grateful for the opportunity and it is generous for the opportunity. However, I also prepared two presentations and handouts, participated in an author's talk, and lead two dine-arounds, all to promote the Social Media book and give the Tech Show sponsors value. Moreover, in contrast to many other Tech Show speakers who consult on technology and thus, accrue additional benefits from participating in Tech Show, I am a practicing lawyer in a non-tech field. So outside the exposure that I can get for my website (I don't get exposure for Solo by Choice because the ABA no longer sells or even lists non-ABA books), I really don't get any other benefits from Tech Show.

    Finally, I have written for other ABA publications without compensation. I contributed to the Flying Solo Book, How to Capture and Keep Clients and have written a couple of pieces on blogging for GP Solo as well as an essay for last year's Legal Rebels. Last year, I did two teleseminars for the ABA on the down economy at no charge (even though the ABA collected a modest fee for the teleseminars for non-members).

    So do I play with the ABA? I suppose I do. But I also believe that I give as much, indeed, more than I take. Can the ABA say the same?

  • Hi Carolyn:

    Appreciate your update. I think the ABA — as with most organizations — is a you get out what you also put in organizations. But that I mean that if your only contact with the ABA is as a “mailbox” member, getting things via e-mail or looking up things on the internet, it's utility is diminished.

    Where I find I get the most out of the ABA is through my own involvement. I've met great attorneys, learned about interesting issues and programs, and had numerous speaking engagements.

    Its easy to criticize an “organization” but realize that it is merely made up of a collection of volunteers (like yourself) who add content, debate issues etc. If more solos got involved in the House of Delegates or leadership positions, more views would be heard.

    So, I suppose its a chicken & egg argument. And here's where I think the ABA is in the right: It has lowered dues as an obstacle to join and get involved. Why, as a solo, wouldn't you take the olive branch and say, “The ABA isn't perfect, but if I can get involved, I can make it better”. That would add real value not just to the ABA but to the profession as a whole.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    Your point about the ABA lowering dues and putting the ball in solos' court is well taken. And if the ABA can provide resources that solos find valuable, that's terrific. Right now, I am personally hesitant to jump on board, but if there are going to be opportunities for other solos, then I say go for it – more is merrier.

  • John Harding

    Hi Carolyn.

    Because I am one of two lawyers in my firm my dues are $399! Times are tough for everyone. Cuts need to be made. I can fire my associate so that I can get the ABA solo rate, or I can keep her employed and cancel my ABA membership, which is essentially nothing more than a $399 magazine subscription. So long ABA….

  • dgulbran

    Speaking for myself, I don't need more “journals” or mailing lists from the ABA. I don't need CLE from them either. I need *actual* *useful* services: good discounts on malpractice insurance, health insurance, life insurance, legal research services, etc.

    I get all of those at great value from my state/local bar associations. The ABA's offerings aren't as attractive, from a service or price perspective.

    Aside from Solosez and Techshow (neither of which require ABA membership to participate in) I can't figure out one thing I've gotten from my ABA membership in the past, which is why I'm not renewing.

  • Letitia

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't the ABA kinda serve as a union for lawyers? Aren't they supposed to lobby for our interests? I'm not sure that the ABA does that for solos, which is a bit shocking, b/c I believe that solos and small firms make up about 60% of the attorney population…

    Yes the ABA does perform some pretty good services, mainly Solosez, but again, it shouldn't cost too much to maintain. Perhaps one could build on Solosez (or Solo Practice University) and create a union or lobbying arm or whatever you want to call it, with its primary focus on solos/small firms. As many of you know, there is strength in numbers…imagine the power of harnessing a good chunk of 60% of the attorney population!

    Sorry if I seem a bit starry eyed (I'm a pretty new attorney), but the legal profession is in sore need of an overhaul, and I don't see the ABA participating in something like that…

  • Carolyn Elefant

    The problem as I see it with setting solo policy is that so much takes place at the state level, where incumbent powers will also set policies that make it harder for newbies to get in the door. There's a need for a strong voice at the national level to combat the states – that's where the ABA could play a prominent role, in my view – but creating this kind of group from scratch would be tough, though not insurmountable (nothing is, after all if!) In the meantime, I continue to serve as one voice lobbying for solo interests here at MyShingle – in recent months, I weighed in on cloud computing (…) and spoke out against both NY and NJ bonafide office requirements (…,

  • Carolyn Elefant

    I've never understood why neither the ABA nor the state bars have been able to leverage the power of their members to secure low cost LEXIS and Westlaw service. True, the state bars now offer Fastcase and Casemaker free, but those services still aren't quite ready for hardcore litigation research or for specialty practices. LEXIS and Westlaw pay tons of money to bar associations but somehow those sponsorships never result in lower cost of service to members.

  • Now that I'm back from vacation, I've responded in my blog post: 'The ABA: Friend, Foe…or Simply Irrelevant for the Solo?”


    Thanks for always calling it like you see it!

  • Legal

    ABA is not getting a cent of my money. They have done great harm to our profession and particularly to Solos by their rampant accreditation of law schools. Starve ABA of what it really wants from you- money to survive and it will learn a little something about protecting attorney's rights.

  • As a BigLaw fugitive gone solo-ish (2 person firm), I'd love to hear thoughts on what organizations *have* been helpful to solos/small firms (aside from the pros/cons debate of the ABA).

  • Statcho

    It’s my understanding that the ABA has some kind of official pro-abortion rights position. Does anyone know where I can find this?

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