Ramsey County Bar Association executive director Cheryl Dalby has been named to head the new “shared staff” venture announced in June by directors of the state’s three biggest bar associations.
The Minnesota, Hennepin County and Ramsey County bar groups settled on the plan as a way to provide greater service and value to lawyer members through the increased efficiencies of a staff headed by a single executive director. After a nationwide search, a committee of members of the three bar associations recommended Dalby, who has headed the staff in Ramsey County for 18 years, and the boards approved the recommendation.
When the new shared staff begins operation under Dalby’s leadership on Jan. 2, it will become the second such arrangement in the U.S.—the Denver and Colorado Bar Associations have operated with a single staff for several decades. According to Tim Groshens, who is retiring as executive director of the MSBA the first of the year, leaders of the three Minnesota bar groups had been contemplating a similar organization for at least five years. Several years ago, he said, he was part of a Minnesota group that traveled to Denver and spent two days there, “asking them thousands of questions from a hundred different perspectives” and “most of us came back saying, ‘We could do this.’”
According to Dalby, the final impetus for the move came when Groshens announced earlier this year that he would be retiring following 34 years heading the MSBA staff.
“We think we probably will save some money along the way, but that’s not why we’re doing this,” she said. “Our main goal is to increase collaboration and increase our value to members. The practice of law is changing so rapidly, and we think that by making the bar association as focused and efficient as possible we can help members weather those changes or embrace those changes, and we are in a much better position to do that if we have a more specialized staff, less duplication, more efficiency.”
One of the main goals behind the move, its proponents say, is to ensure that each of the three bar associations will continue to maintain their own separate identities.
“I think there was a lot of initial resistance to it because I think there was concern that if we only had one staff that we would suddenly become one bar association instead of three,” said current MSBA President Paul Godfrey. “But I think the way we’ve set it up, we’ve been pretty careful to make sure that all three boards are intact and can set their own agendas, their own events.”
Dalby has been working on how the new staff will be organized and says the process is “very close” to completion. Assisting her in the venture is current Hennepin County Bar Association executive director Susie Brown, who has accepted the position of chief operating officer and who will work with Dalby in leading the three bar associations.
One of the efficiencies of combining the staffs, Dalby said, is to better avoid duplication of services. “That doesn’t mean that we’ll be cutting programs,” she said, “but it may be that we see that programs are very similar and we could do it better by combining forces in a particular area.”
“I think each bar association has someone who dedicates a certain amount of time to events,” Godfrey said, “and it’s probably going to be more efficient to have one person coordinating all of the events to avoid duplications.”
He contends that the new structure is necessary to better help the bar organizations deal with a rapidly changing legal environment.
“I think all three bars have experienced some degree of declining numbers,” Godfrey said. “When you have declining numbers of members, your revenue stream goes down and you have to adjust your staff accordingly, and I think all three staffs have been adjusting their staff requirements over time. This will just give us a bigger number of people to shift around and adjust as necessary.”
As she enters her new job, Dalby said her primary goal is to get everyone settled into their new roles, which for many of them will now be cross-organizational.
While each of the bar groups have their own strategic plans, Dalby said, “there are definitely some common themes.”
“I know that one of the things I know we’ll be working on is addressing the issue of access to justice—that there are more and more pro se litigants who can’t afford a lawyer and we know we need to be part of the solution to that. We need to work with the courts, with legal services organizations, law schools, all the different players, so that people who need a lawyer and can’t get one will be able to get one.”
Meanwhile, she said that another goal is to get out into outstate Minnesota as much as possible to meet people. A native of Moorhead, Dalby said that working with lawyers throughout the state was “one of the reasons this job really appealed to me.”
She said she’ll miss being executive director of the Ramsey County Bar Association, but is looking forward to a broader application of the skills she’s honed during her 18 years there.
“One of the benefits of a bar association is that we constantly have new leaders,” she says. “I think I’ve worked with 18 or 19 different presidents of the Ramsey County Bar and so many different board members, and each one of them has something new and interesting to bring to the role and I think that’s part of what keeps us fresh and keeps us relevant to our members.”
Godfrey, meanwhile, is optimistic about the move.
“I think this is going to be good for all three bars,” he said. “I think they’ll be able to maintain their identities and have a staff that’s more adept at reacting to their needs.”