How a Young CEO Can Help Navigate Changing Member Demographics
To meet a generational shift in membership, the Washington State Association for Justice hired an executive director who looked like its younger members.
What happens when the heavenly bodies align? We get the jaw-dropping beauty of this week’s total solar eclipse (or, in my case, a near-total solar eclipse) which makes us stop and think for a moment about our existence in the universe.
While it’s no solar eclipse, an alignment of leadership and membership can produce a similar “a-ha moment” for your association—something the Washington State Association for Justice is currently experiencing.
About a year ago, in response to increasing generational shifts among its 2,400 members, WSAJ decided to hire a young CEO: 34-year-old Liz Berry.
In our July/August issue of Associations Now, I profiled Berry’s quick ascent to leadership, along with two other executive directors (ages 40 and under). But what that story didn’t really touch upon was how young leaders can be uniquely positioned to empathize with the needs of younger members.
Berry calls it “leadership reflective of membership,” and she practices this daily by walking the walk of a new generation of lawyers who think, act, and work differently.
Whereas previous generations of members felt like they had a sense of duty to join WSAJ, the millennial generation is asking, “Why should I join?”
“For a while there was a real fear that baby boomers were retiring and millennials might not join,” Berry says. “We are finding new ways to inspire, excite, and give younger members a reason to join.”
One of Berry’s biggest advantages, she says, is her age. She has helped to grow a new crop of members, the largest being a segment of lawyers who are six to 15 years out of law school. As a millennial, she empathizes with WSAJ’s younger members, many of whom face new career and employment challenges.
Currently, many of them are graduating from law school with huge amounts of debt, and they’re finding it difficult to enter traditional career paths in the legal profession.
That dynamic has led to a new membership trend—professionals who are skipping law firm life and launching small, independent firms. Berry calls these members “the solos,” and they typically don’t have access to the resources or networking that law firms or senior partners provide.
“These are people who are on their couches setting up a law firm,” Berry says. “I’m thinking about them and how WSAJ can be their go-to resource and senior partner.”
To better serve both its new and longtime members, WSAJ started on a modernization effort. The association is in the process of prioritizing member services that can be delivered digitally, so that members have 24/7 access to benefits.
“A lot of it has to do with the resources that members can access anywhere,” Berry says. “I’m thinking about the member that needs a document on their iPad at 2 a.m. in Hong Kong.”
To do this, WSAJ overhauled its website and database to make many of its resources mobile- and digital-friendly, including a community listserv and a document exchange database that has more than 3,500 depositions, briefs, and forms.
While member benefits may be shifting digitally, Berry says younger members still want the experience of high-impact, in-person events.
Earlier this month, WSAJ’s convention in Vancouver broke attendance records by piggybacking off events happening in the host city at the same time. The meeting coincided with the city’s pride festival, which is the largest parade in Western Canada.
While that might seem like a logistical headache for meeting planners, Berry says it actually brought in an outside source of energy to the meeting experience.
“Pride weekend was an absolute game changer. Our young members loved it,” Berry says. “I think they also want to go to urban environments with tons of opportunities to network and explore.”
Another key is keeping the meeting convenient and budget-friendly to members. Next year, WSAJ will move its convention back to Seattle because the majority of its members come from the surrounding three-county region.
“We are stepping it up in small but significant ways …,” Berry says. “We are thinking about how to create experiences that are exciting even if it’s in our own backyard.”
This has allowed Berry the room she needs to lead confidently and pragmatically alongside a 51-member board of governors who often are twice her age.
“For my leadership to select a leader, like me, that looks like this generation is key,” Berry says. “It’s showing an investment and care for what that next generation looks like.”
Liz Berry, the executive director of the Washington State Association for Justice. (Rick Dahms)