From the Executive Director | Some Gambling at the OBA

By John Morris Williams

ronstik | #477321158 | stock.adobe.com

As most of you have read or heard, it is my plan to retire at the end of this year. In 2003, OBA President Melissa DeLacerda and the Board of Governors took a big risk and hired me as executive director. I was charged with bringing change to the OBA. Taking existing organizations, buildings or other things and making them into something new, I have found from personal experience, is harder than starting from scratch. In remolding organizations or remodeling buildings, you have to be careful not to eliminate the load-bearing walls or pillars. If you don’t have the original plans, it can be risky business. Thankfully, I have had the blessing of having good advisors in both volunteers and professional staff to reveal to me the locations of the pillars and load-bearing walls, literally and figuratively.

When I came to the OBA, the finances were strained, building maintenance had been deferred far too long and half the place was covered with asbestos. We moved lots of walls when we remodeled the building and abated the asbestos. Also, I hope we have removed some walls in terms of accessibility, both virtually and in person. We did not reach perfection, but that is work that must forever be ongoing. To be a welcoming organization, it is necessary that our culture be one of continuing to move or remove walls, all the while being mindful to not put up any unnecessary barriers or remove any that are essential to maintaining structural stability.

In 2003, we had about 50% of our members’ email addresses. Since they are not required to be furnished to us, we took some risks to increase that number. Today, that number is over 95%. Anticipating that the online world would significantly change the landscape, we decided to move some virtual walls and make more services available online. It was somewhat of a gamble to take scarce resources at the time and attempt to make major leaps in technology. We thought if we made MCLE reports available online, more members would interact with us and furnish their email addresses. It worked. Next, we went so far as to “push out” MCLE reports by email and alleviate those who were in compliance, before the end of the year, from having to fill out the annual MCLE report to further grow our online capacities. It worked! Today, instead of receiving over 15,000 pieces of paper and taking up everyone’s time to fill out a report, the vast majority of members have no reporting requirement, and the huge stacks of paper have disappeared. When I was in practice, it usually took about an hour to get the report filled out. Between staff pulling the files, looking over all the attendance certificates and filling out the form, it all took time. For many of our members, time is their sellable product. Do the math: Over the course of the year, millions of dollars worth of billable time has been saved by eliminating the report, not to mention postage costs and trees saved. Since then, we have added online dues payment, CLE, legal research, member lookup and a number of other tools. It was a gamble, and I think it paid off well.

In 2004, the House of Delegates took a big gamble that the progress we wished for was worthy of consideration, and dues increased from $175 to $275. Because of that big gamble, our technology has been continually updated, the building was remodeled and we have maintained a stable, long-term, dedicated staff. It was planned at the time for the dues increase to be sufficient for five years, and thereafter, periodic adjustments upward were to be sought. Dues have not increased in the last 17 years, and we are still in good financial shape for the time being. While our membership has increased by more than 3,000 members since 2003, with the aid of technology, we actually have three fewer full-time employees in administrative and program staff today than when I began in 2003.

During my time as executive director, we have tried to not take too many risks, but guessing the future is always a gamble. I think, overall, we have been pretty lucky.

To contact Executive Director Williams, email him at johnw@okbar.org.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal – OBJ 93 Vol 8 (October 2022)