Get ready for dues, eJournal changes at State Bar

While only a fraction of State Bar of Michigan members are going to be at the SBM annual meeting in Grand Rapids today and tomorrow, Executive Director Janet Welch noted that something’s happening today that affects all members: dues invoices are going out.

State Bar of Michigan Executive Director Janet Welch addresses attendees at the kickoff of the ICLE 2012 Solo and Small Firm Institute, held in conjunction with the SBM meeting in Grand Rapids.

And, for the first time since 2004, there will be a change in the dues amount.

“Your dues are going down,” she said at her annual welcome and report at the kickoff of the ICLE 2012 Solo and Small Firm Institute, held in conjunction with the SBM meeting at DeVos Place.

This is thanks to a recent Michigan Supreme Court order that called for the decrease of the disciplinary portion of annual dues effective this bar year by $10, something the Representative Assembly has historically lobbied for (only the high court can set dues amounts). This time around, the Supreme Court acted on this on its own.

“We are below the national average in our dues, and I think we can make a good case that we are giving you more for your money than other states’ bar associations,” said Welch, who pointed to two examples for the coming year.

One of the most popular member benefits is the daily eJournal case summary email, which Welch said has summarized almost 50,000 cases since it was launched in 1999 as the first electronic daily case summary service in the country. This year, the eJournal added CaseMaker, which allows SBM members free access to its legal research software, and new features have been added to it based on what members asked for – such as faster search results with a more intuitive interface, personalized search history and customizable folders.

Then there’s the Practice Management Resource Center, the SBM’s online resource for solo and small firm management, which has refreshed a lot of its content thanks to the encouragement of outgoing State Bar President Julie Fershtman, who formed a task force last year seeking for ways to improve it. Resources in financial management, calendaring, client relations, marketing, best practices and disaster policies, record retention and IOLTA have been updated, and a new library of law-related e-books via the Overdrive software is about to launch.

In addition, Welch said that a new mentoring database, the JobTarget Mentor Board, is being developed to bring seasoned Michigan attorneys together with new ones.

That’s something that’s going under the watch of incoming SBM President Bruce Courtade, who will be sworn in later today. Check with the Michigan Lawyer blog later today for more on that.

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What’s going on with the SBM president these days?

We’re almost at the point when we can write a headline saying “State Bar of Michigan President Julie Fershtman: The First 100 Days,” but we’ll jump the gun a bit here.

Over a cup of Earl Grey tea at a Starbucks near her Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith, P.C. office, the 2011-12 SBM president reflected on all the things she’s either worked on, witnessed, or simply felt good about since her Sept. 15 inauguration.

First is the task force Fershtman formed to enhance the SBM’s Practice Management Resource Center (PMRC). Headed by Rebecca Simkins, it’s working on coming up with recommendations by April — some of which could be instilled immediately, others may be long-term goals.

But it’s been getting the word out about the PMRC overall that Fershtman said has given her the greatest satisfaction. Meeting with bar associations across the state, she said practitioners have been receptive to taking advantage of the service, which offers bar members training and hands-on assistance with legal technology and management components. She noted that many of the bar members she’s met haven’t known much about the PMRC, and she hopes the task force helps to change that.

That leads to hearing from bar members directly. Fershtman did say in her incoming speech that she wants to be the most accessible SBM president in history — complete with a presidential blog — and has kept her word by taking emails and calls from practitioners, spending upwards of an hour on the phone listening to what they have to say.

“I’m encouraged that they are comfortable enough to make the call,” she said.

Fershtman added that she’s also encouraged by the SCAO report calling for the elimination of 45 judgeships across the state — per the SBM’s Judicial Crossroads Task Force’s report — which she said wasn’t met with the kind of resistance as expected, as it’s attrition-based, “which is what we were seeking.” As well, she said Gov. Rick Snyder’s recently formed Indigent Defense Advisory Commission looks promising.

Still to go at the bar, she said, is better educating the public on the unauthorized practice of law, as well as the “Solutions on Self-Help” project, meant to give in pro parties some direction as to the proper court forms they need, and thus not wasting judges’ time.

Not bad for 100 days. Or something close to that.

77th State Bar president says ‘I do’

Following her swearing-in today by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr., Julie I. Fershtman took the podium at the State Bar of Michigan annual meeting Dearborn as 77th SBM president.

And, following the expected thank-yous to family, friends and fellow bar members – Fershtman was ready to talk business.

As she told Michigan Lawyers Weekly for the Aug. 29 edition, she was going to form a committee that will broaden and improve the Practice Management Resource Center, where State Bar members can receive, as part of their annual dues, training and hands-on assistance with legal technology and management components.

Taking the next step Fershtman announced today that Rebecca Simkins, who has served as chair of SBM’s Law Practice Management & Legal Administrators Section, would head the group. And, today, the PMRC rolled out an overhauled website, with easier navigation and the “Practice EZ” theme to emphasize it.

She also announced that her SBM presidency blog, www.sbmpres2012.com, would be rolled out later today. In it, she’ll post what she’s doing and what’s she’s seeing happening across the state, with posted pictures from tours she’ll be going on across Michigan, when she meets with local bar associations.

Fershtman also remarked that things SBM members should expect throughout the year include:

• A crackdown following member complaints of various “unauthorized practice of law” sprouting up online, and educating the public on the risks of do-it-yourself legal functions, such as wills and trusts;

• A staff of the Member Services Committee that is now doubled, and primed to explore and expand member services and benefits;

• Exploring mentor programs, and determining not just what works, but also what’s best for membership.

Lots of feet expected to move at SBM annual meeting

If you’re attending the annual State Bar of Michigan meeting today and tomorrow, let’s hope you brought comfortable shoes. Because you may be part of standing-room-only crowds at the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn.

That’s because about 1,200 SBM members pre-registered for it, which was noted to be a higher than normal number of attendees compared with recent years, and around 100 were estimated to have registered at the door.

Besides section meetings, recognition luncheons and banquets, the meeting is coupled with the ICLE Solo & Small Firm Institute, offering two days of roughly hourlong seminars on everything from smartphones and tablets to effective deposition procedures and handling minor-in-possession cases.

And with the legal profession becoming more competitive than ever, solo attorneys and small partnerships in Michigan are looking to learn as much as they can to expand their repertoire in as quickly a period as possible.

SBM Executive Director Janet K. Welch let that be known in her annual welcome and report.

“Solo and small firm practitioners are the heart and soul of the State Bar of Michigan,” she said. “Over the last year, we have learned more about you than we have ever known as a result of the Economics of Law and our members survey. … What we know is that many of you are working a lot harder to stay where you are. As well, larger-firm practice is more and more difficult and competitive.”

To that end, Welch introduced incoming SBM President Julie I. Fershtman, who wasted no time in making her 2011-12 mission known.

“The State Bar’s strategic plan has noted that the interests of the solo and small firm practitioners in this state is an area that deserves strong attention,” she said.

“We are listening. … We are sensitive to the concerns of solo and small firm practitioners,” she added, noting that such attorneys are the “innovative practitioners here in the state of Michigan” who don’t have the constraints of larger law firm members, but also don’t have the resources to make their practice niche ideas work while juggling the running of a business.

So, she announced that the content of the Practice Management Resource Center ­– the SBM’s online resource for better firm management – will be expanding, and a committee she will be appointing people to in order to look at the content offered. The group will meet within the next few weeks, and will include professors, IT gurus, practice management specialists, “and even the average practitioner, who is thinking of expanding his practice and what he wants to see.”

One thing’s for certain: attendees today and tomorrow will be seeing a lot of their colleagues and brethren over the next two days. They just might not be sitting down while they do it.

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