Building a Virtual Bar Center

By Henry M. Greenberg

Building a Virtual Bar Center

Over its 143-year history, the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) has frequently adapted to meet the needs of members and the legal profession and do the public good. Time and again, we have expanded operations and broadened our outlook, as dictated by the needs of the day. Once again, the time for change is upon us.

In the past, change meant expanding NYSBA’s brick-and-mortar presence either through relocation of our headquarters or overhauling physical space. Major moves and ambitious renovations of the Bar Center on Elk Street signaled new beginnings and an expansion of NYSBA’s role as the leader for lawyers across the state and nation.

Today, the digital revolution has transformed the way people communicate and do business. This necessitates a completely different kind of expansion for NYSBA. Now we must rebuild our technology and digital operations and build a “virtual” bar center.

More specifically, we must overhaul NYSBA’s operating systems, by adding state of the art e-commerce technology, enhancing the quality and reach of our communications capacity, and digitizing all publications. We must create a bar center where attorneys across the street and around the world are just a click away from accessing NYSBA’s services and benefits.

CAUTIONARY TALES

Organizations that fail to meet the digital challenge proceed at their peril. Consider, for example, the fate of Kodak and Blockbuster Video.

Kodak was once near-synonymous with cameras, film, and picture-taking. Photos were termed “Kodak moments” in the company’s advertising.

Kodak was also the home of a world-renowned research and development center for photography. In the early 1970s, its laboratory invented digital photography. But the company buried it because of its highly profitable film business. Years later, Apple invented digital photography and revolutionized how we take pictures. Kodak, by contrast, went bankrupt.

Like Kodak, Blockbuster video stores were once ubiquitous. When a movie was newly released to video, customers flocked to the stores. Now, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other services provide customers instant access to thousands of movies and television shows from the comfort of their homes or handheld devices. Only one Blockbuster store is left – in Bend, Oregon.

These cautionary tales are instructive. They show what NYSBA must do going forward – and quickly.

There was a time when admission to the New York bar meant membership in NYSBA. Membership numbers rose consistently through 2012. In the last six years, however, NYSBA experienced a 10% decline in membership. Today, only 35% of New York admitted lawyers are NYSBA members.

The primary reason for this trend is clear. The world communicates and connects through social media and the internet. It looks for answers – and solutions – in the cloud. The value of NYSBA’s content, CLE programming and products has not changed. What has changed is the way people want to get it – quickly, efficiently and online, with 24/7 availability and easy-to-use websites.

However, NYSBA’s digital infrastructure has not kept pace with the communication revolution. For too long we have relied on a website infrastructure that was built in 1998. This has hamstrung NYSBA’s ability to analyze data and communicate, in real time, with members and potential new members. Much-needed, high-quality content and information has been difficult for members to access or is hidden from their view behind a paywall.

MEETING THE DIGITAL CHALLENGE

NYSBA is meeting the digital challenge head on. We are developing a robust online presence by digitizing our archives, moving more content outside of paywalls, and posting breaking legal news to our website, blog, and social media platforms. We will enhance our members’ experience through the acquisition of sophisticated e-commerce technology to make CLE registration and product purchases quick and easy.

NYSBA has assembled a team of information technology and website experts to guide our digital transformation. They are installing best-of-breed software and technology systems to better serve members’ needs and optimize staff productivity. They are also redesigning our website to make it more user-friendly and provide a more intuitive experience.

OTHER CHALLENGES

A digital overhaul is not enough. Building a digital bar center requires more than acquiring state of the art software and technology. It also requires reimagining and transforming the ways NYSBA serves its members.

A new Special Committee on Association Structure and Operations is examining ways to improve the overall effectiveness and functioning of NYSBA in our technology-driven world. Another new special committee, on Strategic Communications, is developing a plan to create more consistent messaging and content targeted to member needs and interests – no more email onslaughts! And, our Finance Committee is also working on a long-term fiscal plan, paying attention to ways to cut costs, grow outside income, and ensure that dues and pricing stay reasonable.

Moreover, we are taking a proactive approach to diversifying NYSBA. New York State is a beautiful mosaic of people. We are women and men, straight and gay, of every race, color, ethnicity, national origin, and religion. We have varying beliefs and live and work together in communities – large and small – urban, suburban, and rural. NYSBA needs to reflect this diversity in its leadership, membership, and staff.

A VIRTUAL BAR CENTER: ACCESSIBILITY

All NYSBA members will benefit from the virtual bar center. Member preferences have been a driving force in this endeavor – and soon they will have a better, faster, and easier time getting the content they need, and more choices in how they access it.

The number of New York lawyers who live and work outside of New York is rising. Of the 330,000 New York admitted attorneys, 140,000 reside outside of the state, and more than 26,000 live outside the United States.

NYSBA has implemented a new initiative called “NYSBA Global” to reach out to the ever-growing number of New York lawyers who live and work across the nation and around the globe. These lawyers need what NYSBA offers – most importantly, resources to stay current and connected to New York law. To serve them effectively, we must ensure they are only a click away from connecting with colleagues around the world and from getting the CLE credits, information, and tools they need. A virtual bar center will do that.

The virtual bar center will be a boon to rural lawyers across the state, as well. It will give them quick access to CLEs, tips, and communities, where they can connect with other lawyers to ask questions and exchange ideas, no matter where they live and practice.

THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT

NYSBA is on the cusp of a great transformation. In the past, whenever we met the challenges of the day, our association grew and prospered. We will do so again today and secure our future for generations to come. We owe nothing less to our members, the legal profession, and the public.

BUILDING THE BAR CENTER – A HISTORY OF NYSBA HEADQUARTERS

• NYSBA was founded in 1876 by an act of the New York State Legislature. The Association and the Legislature continue to enjoy strong mutual ties.

• Our first headquarters were in the old New York State Capitol building. Visiting the State Capitol? Look for the commemorative NYSBA plaque hanging in the main hallway on the first-floor Senate side of building!

• We eventually outgrew the Capitol and moved several times in the early 20th century – first to a three-room office at 112 State Street in 1928, then to a slightly larger office at 90 State Street in 1933, and finally to an elegant, three-story brick Federal-style building at 99 Washington Avenue in 1951.

• The rising number of attorneys – and NYSBA members – led us to search for a permanent and suitably-sized headquarters in the mid-1960s. Governors’ Row – a collection of historic rowhouses, including a former residence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on Elk Street adjacent to the Court of Appeals and across the street from the State Capitol – was the perfect location.

• But the move to our current headquarters wasn’t easy – historical buildings nationwide were being torn down in a spasm of urban renewal, and Albany Mayor Erastus Corning III objected to the sale of the properties to NYSBA. Would a Battle of Elk Street be fought?

-• NYSBA and the City of Albany reached a compromise – the historical edifices and character of certain rooms within the townhouses would be retained, but NYSBA could expand within and behind the rowhouses to build a modern home for the Association.

• Under the leadership of the illustrious past NYSBA President Robert MacCrate, our 22,000 members raised $1.6 million in 1967 – over $12 million in 2019 – to build the bar center at 1 Elk.

• The dedication of the new bar center took place on September 24, 1971, with Governor Rockefeller as the guest speaker.

• The modern bar center occupies 2-6 Elk Street. 1 Elk, despite being our address, was demolished and is now the small yard adjacent to the rowhouses

• Another round of expansion in 1986 – costing $6.8 million, or $15 million in 2019 – added more office space and completed the modern headquarters that exists today.

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