The Future of the Bar: Remaining Relevant in an Era of Disengagement

February 22, 2009

By Douglas J. Brocker

It is an honor to serve the members of the Tenth Judicial District Bar this year as your President. I am especially privileged to serve along with Ed Gaskins, the President of the Wake County Bar Association, and am proud to be a long-standing member of the WCBA. I appreciate the opportunity to address the members of the WCBA and the Tenth District in alternating editions of the Bar Flyer this year.

As one of the younger members privileged to serve in this capacity, I plan to approach my columns over the next year with an eye toward the future of our local bars and the profession. The Tenth District, with over 4,200 members, is the largest local bar organization in North Carolina and is larger than the entire bar in a number of states. From attending meetings with other bar organizations around the state and the country, it is obvious that there are many things that the WCBA and the Tenth District do exceptionally well. One of those areas has been our ability to attract new members and to keep existing members involved and engaged.

To maintain this success, our bar organizations must continue to evolve and remain relevant, especially to younger and future members. The importance of this issue is demonstrated by demographic information concerning the past and future members of our organizations and the intergenerational differences between them. Bar organizations currently are composed of the following four recognized generational groups:

  • WWII, Greatest Generation (born roughly 1909-1945);
  • Baby Boomers, Post-WWII, (1946-1964);
  • Baby Busters or Generation X-ers (1965-1978)
  • Millennials or Generation Y-ers (after 1979)

The Tenth District and WCBA, like most modern bar organizations, either were created by or flourished under the leadership and membership of the World War II Generation and the Baby Boomers. These two generations, especially the first, generally were willing and content to “put in their time” to advance up through the ranks of hierarchical and highly-structured organizations. These two generational groups attended bar and other civic meetings and functions in part from a sense of duty, loyalty and responsibility, as well as from a belief that this was the path to success and advancement within the profession and the community.

By contrast, the future members and leaders of our local bar organizations from Generation X and Y generally are much less interested in participating in hierarchal or strictly-structured organizations. As a group, they are more focused on accomplishing specific and discrete tasks or goals and generally are very technologically savvy. Individuals within these groups, of which I am a member, typically are more apt to become involved in bar and civic organizations when they can see the direct personal benefits of membership and participation. They are less likely to do so purely out of a sense of duty, loyalty or responsibility. Increasing time demands and pressures, whether perceived or actual, have made these later two generations more critical in evaluating participation in such organizations and less inclined to do so.

It is fairly well documented that there has been a noticeable decline in most forms of civic participation and engagement since the latter part of the 20th century. See e.g.,” Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Robert D. Putnam: (Simon and Schuster 2000). Dr. Putnam, a Harvard professor, provides a compelling case for this civic disengagement, the likely reasons for it, and ways to address and reverse this trend. One thing is relatively certain from the data he analyzes – this phenomenon is part of a broader social trend that must be addressed by bar organizations and other similar groups. Id. at 203.

Even though we currently have two very healthy and growing local bar organizations, this issue is still important. As the first two generations age, they will cease to be involved in the bar in increasingly larger numbers. Although we have done a relatively good job of involving Generation X members to date, their involvement is increasingly threatened by the competing demands of dual careers, family obligations, among various others factors. By most accounts, Generation Y is largest demographic group in American history, even larger than their parents – the Baby Boomers.

Generation X and Y members’ critical attitudes toward civic participation and the general social trend toward disengagement could be a toxic combination to organizations that are not proactive in addressing these issues. For these reasons, it is critical that we remain relevant to and continue to engage members from Generation X and Y, while continuing many of the excellent traditions that have made us so successful.

We plan to address these issues, among numerous others, as part of the long-range planning evaluation process over the next year. I welcome comments and suggestions from all members of the Tenth District and WCBA on this issue. Here are just a few ideas about how we can ensure the continued success of our bar organizations in this respect:

  • Continue to make social and other collective bar events fun and useful. In my opinion, one of the main reasons the WCBA has weathered this disengagement trend better than other bars is that we have many opportunities for our members to meet, eat, drink and have fun together, including the only monthly bar luncheon in the state to my knowledge. We all must stress the importance of making participation in such events a priority and the value of doing so, especially to new and younger members of the bar.
  • Encourage and promote “bridging” bar activities that provide opportunities to meet other members of different ages, practice areas and other demographics.
  • Address new challenges and bar issues through focused, short term projects and ad hoc committees with clear and well-defined goals and agendas.
  • Embrace and safely utilize interactive technology, including e-mail, blogs, on-line discussion groups and others, to communicate with and among our members, as asupplement to personal interactions and connections.
  • Allow members of Generations X and Y to provide meaningful participation and different approaches in establishing committee and organizational goals and priorities, without requiring extended periods of prior service.
  • Provide younger members with positive feedback and recognition. Acknowledging contributions is critical to continued participation, especially among members of Generation X and Y.
  • Market effectively how membership and participation in the bar benefits members of Generations X and Y, both professionally and personally.

By utilizing these and other approaches, I am confident that we can remain relevant to the younger and future members of the Tenth District and the WCBA and keep them involved and engaged. These steps will help ensure the future success and vitality of these organizations, even in an era of disengagement.