Leaner, nimbler and ready for the future
By Montana Lawyer Staff
The State Bar of Montana has begun to roll out a series of technological improvements that promise a modernized bar infrastructure and impvoved member experience. The bar has been able to make these improvements while staying well under 2021 general fund and reducing budegeted general fund expenses in each of its two successive budgets. According to Executive Director John Mudd, the bar’s newly redesigned website and accompanying association management system, launched in December 2021, is probably the most noticeable change members will see, but that is only one piece of a larger vision he has for transforming the bar into a thoroughly modern organization — lean, nimble, data driven and technologically cutting edge.
Early in 2022, the bar will also be launching an online lawyer referral service, Licensed Lawyer, connecting to a network developed by the Utah State Bar and also used by state bars in Colorado and Alaska. Licensed Lawyer will replace and offer major improvements on the bar’s current, mostly telephone-based referral service. The service will give attorneys full control over their profiles and ability to market to prospective clients, and screen clients to make sure only the right ones are referred. (See ad on page 20 for more information about Licensed Lawyer.)
Members who haven’t yet logged into the new website are encouraged to set up their new password now. (See breakout on facing page for more information on logging in for the first time.)
State Bar Trustees Approve FY23 Budget
The State Bar Board of Trustees approved the bar’s FY23 budget at its Dec. 3, 2021, meeting, as the FY21 review and FY22 results continue to show to general bar operations with positive cash flow and a stabilized budget.
“While there was a lot of uncertainty at the outset of the pandemic and the potential effects of that on general operations of the State Bar, I believe we’ve been able to navigate all of that successfully,” said John Mudd, executive director of the organization. “FY21 added to the new stability in operations, and we are continuing to perform on-budget for FY22.” The bar’s current fiscal year closes on March 31, 2022.
The FY21 independent financial review, completed this fall by Anderson Zurmuehlen, P.C., covers all consolidated State Bar operations including revenue from dues, assessments for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, admissions fees, bar section revenue, mandatory CLE assessments and the like.
Of the State Bar’s annual dues and assessments, $300 goes toward general bar operations, with the other assessments, the MCLE fee, disciplinary counsel assessment, the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection assessment, and section dues, each allocated to those particular operations.
The FY21 independent review showed that the organization was in good financial condition. Between the audited financials in FY20 and the reviewed financials in FY2 l, the total liabilities and net assets increased from $5.2 million to $6.9 million.
“Like our members, we were very cautious with general operations spending in FY21 and the bottom line benefitted from a move to online platforms for many of our traditional activities,” said Mudd. “Of course, as we hopefully leave the pandemic, the key will be to see what efficiencies we’ve gained can continue in order to lengthen the time before we would need to explore another increase in membership dues.”
Mudd noted the particularly strong demand for online CLE in coming years. “Both the bar generally, as well as the sections, saw strong demand from members for live, interactive online CLE, which also has the added benefit of reduced delivery costs and higher net revenue.”
Budget forecasts contained in the bar’s 2017 dues increase petition indicated that another general dues increase (not including other assessments) could be needed as soon as FY23. However, that date now has been pushed out further.
“As we sit today, with our operating surplus and contributions we’ve made to our invested reserves, we hope that it will be several more years before we need to explore a general dues increase and that’s a positive development for the members,” noted Mudd.
The FY23 budget for general operations (excluding mandatory CLE, disciplinary counsel and admissions operations) continues to forecast positive net operating revenue, even while the organization makes new investments in technology.
“One of the Trustees’ strategic priorities for general operations has been to invest in new technology to create long-term operational efficiencies,” said Alanah Griffith, the Board of Trustees’ Secretary/Treasurer. “We’ve been able to utilize some of the unexpected positive net revenue from the pandemic to build for the future.”
Those investments, and strategic staffing decisions with retirements, have added to the positive cash flow. “The 2018 dues increase, which went into effect during FY19, provided structural stabilization to the budget, and we’ve added to that by adjusting our staffing mix and consolidating positions through retirements,” said Mudd.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel also continues to remain in a structurally sound budget position. “As with the State Bar’s general operations, ODC has continued to look for efficiencies, including reducing expenses and staff,” said Pam Bucy, Chief Disciplinary Counsel. ODC significantly reduced its expenses between FY20 and FY21. “We remain strongly committed to our mission to protect the public and to do that in the most cost-effective manner we can.”
The Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protect remains solvent, with $1.4 million in designated net assets as of March 31, 2021. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen an uptick in claims to the fund over the past year,” said Mudd. “That said, the fund remains solvent and the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection Board continues to handle those claims effectively and efficiently.”
The Montana Supreme Court’s Commission on Continuing Legal Education, which is supported through bar staff, has asked for an increase in the mandatory CLE assessment for coming years. The MCLE assessment hasn’t been raised in the 20 years since the Commission was created.
In its response to that petition, the State Bar trustees supported an increase in that fee, at a minimum, to keep pace with inflation. “That MCLE portion of the overall budget continues to require some attention,” said Griffith. “Thus, the Commission has asked the court to consider a fee increase to bring that portion of the budget into structural stability.”
In summary Griffith noted, “I think that the bottom line is that the State Bar of Montana is in an overall healthy financial position and that’s very good news as we head into the new year.”
The FY21 consolidated independent financial review is available through the State Bar offices.
Over the past several years, the bar has said goodbye to a number of staff members, including the retirement of General Counsel Betsy Brandborg in December 2021 (see photos on page 21).
When possible, the bar has responded by consolidating job responsibilities rather than replacing employees when they move on.
The bar — along with much of the rest of the world — has had a major test of its nimbleness and adaptability during the pandemic. As with most other organizations, there were struggles along the way as staff adjusted to remote work environments, but despite disruptions, staff was able to seamlessly continue its core function, including a successful dues season and coordinating three administrations of the bar exam.
Mudd said that while there are now fewer staff members taking on the same amount of tasks as before, the bar is focused on providing a positive work environment for its remaining employees.
“Employees are continuing to utilize the remote work capabilities rolled out during the pandemic and we anticipate some flexible work arrangements in a more formal manner in the future,” he said. “We want well compensated, happy employees, using modern equipment and technology to help them more effectively perform their tasks,” Mudd said.
Pandemic cloud brings silver lining
Mudd said that while the pandemic made bar operations more difficult in many ways, it also brought the benefit of lessons learned.
For example, when all in-person CLE and other events were canceled early in the pandemic, paper brochures for CLEs was eliminated and the bar relied on emails and its website. This resulted in significant savings in printing and postage costs. Rather than a negative impact from this, the bar saw increased both CLE attendance and increased revenue.
The bar hopes to apply these lessons to delivery of services and information to members in other ways going forward.
“We remain very optimistic about the future for the State Bar of Montana and look forward to applying knowledge gained through the pandemic to improving our operations in the coming years,” he said.
As the bar moves forward it will continue to focus on using technology to offer better and more efficient service. The association management system that integrates the bar’s member database with its new website will be a big part of that, allowing for a robust member portal. While the website is a work in progress, it offers improved flexibility, and as new elements are rolled out in coming weeks and months, members should notice a more seamless member experience and a system that reduces the need for multiple passwords for various tasks.
“We’ve worked hard on all these things,” Mudd said. “We have more work to do, but we’re getting there.”