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Air Force JAG leader finds meaning, challenge at the ABA

Retired Lieutenant General Jack Rives continues his life in the law by piloting giant group with bases in Chicago and D.C.

March 9, 2012

A career in the law was always in Jack Rives’ flight path. Even after a long Air Force career, in which he “was a lawyer from day one,” the now-retired lieutenant general in 2010 became executive director and COO of the American Bar Association.

Rives’ original legal career trajectory was planned just to serve out the four years of his University of Georgia ROTC commitment, “but I really enjoyed what I was doing in the Air Force and I kept moving around. My first nine-and-a-half years in the Air Force, I moved seven times.” 

After touchdowns in upstate New York, Korea, Greece and the Philippines, he landed at the Pentagon, where promotions and assignments led him to supervise 4,600 people as the senior lawyer in the Air Force as judge advocate general.

“All of a sudden I was in more than four years. I kept enjoying the challenges and opportunities. And then finally I’d been in 33 years. It was time to do something else. 

“I wanted to do something that would be meaningful and have challenges, and I talked to a lot of different people about job prospects. I had met with the president of a nonprofit in Alexandria, and he had mentioned to me, probably two years before I retired from the Air Force, that I could be good for a nonprofit. Had I considered that? And I had not.” 

He credits timing with leading him to the ABA, which he said was “exactly what I was looking for in terms of being a meaningful job” and whose leadership came open at a time when he was in his last months in the military. “I said I wanted some challenges, and there are no shortages of challenges.” 

On the transition from military to civilian leadership, he says: “The skills that helped me be successful in the military did transfer very easily to the American Bar Association. 

“In today’s military, if you’re going to be successful in a senior position, you have to develop good leadership and management skills, and those really are transferable.” 

Based in Chicago, Rives also has an office in Washington, D.C., where he spends at least one day a week. There, he talked with CEO Update about his transition and some of those challenges.

CEO Update: The military is a structured organization, and the ABA is more decentralized. Did you adjust your leadership style accordingly?

Jack Rives: My personal leadership style has been one of inclusiveness. Some people assumed that in the military I was giving orders. I never really gave an order to someone. I would work with them. 

Of course when you become a senior officer, people don’t want to displease you, and when I asked for something politely, they would take that as something they wanted to please me [with] their response. Coming to the ABA, it’s the same sort of thing. It’s working with people. And my basic philosophy on working with people is for me to always do my best; for me to always try to do what’s right and to treat people with dignity and respect. 

My first week on the job, I knew that the ABA staff was wondering, “What’s this military guy going to do? What are his demands going to be?” I held town hall meetings at both the Chicago and Washington, D.C., offices. Instead of meeting with 700 in Chicago and 250 in D.C., I met with them in smaller groups. I told them something about myself, what my personal view was and what I respected most in other people. I know I learn more by listening than by talking, and I’m respectful to people to hear their views. And I can frequently learn a lot that will make my ultimate resolution of an issue much better by being as inclusive as possible. 

So even when staff has a very good idea of how to resolve an issue, I make sure that we’ve involved the volunteers who care about it. Sometimes that’s a very resource-intensive process both in terms of the commitment of people and of time, but if you do it right, if you involve people in the process of helping to identify the problem, helping to identify solutions, then they’re more likely to be comfortable and accept the resolution, even if it’s not what they would have really wanted at the beginning.

CU: Has the culture of the organization changed significantly since you arrived?

JR: We'’re a huge organization. Some associations are relatively homogeneous. The ABA actually has more than 3,500 entities between divisions and sections and task forces and standing committees and special committees. Most people who get passionate about the ABA do so because they’re working on a certain project or a task force, or their division or section. They get to know other people at meetings within that smaller group. That’s what they have the passion for. When I first got to staff, I saw a lot of people talking about silos. Two years later there’s a lot less talk about the silos.

Some associations actually encourage specialty groups to break off. The American Medical Association has done nothing to discourage specialty groups from forming their own associations. We like to have all of America’s lawyers in the ABA, but they can be in the section on taxation or real property or litigation or work on death penalty issues or poverty cases or whatever. But doing that sometimes does cause people to say “You guys at the ABA,” and so what I’ve tried to get them to understand is we are “you guys.” You are “us” and the ABA is just one group and let’s work together on things. 

All of our 3,500 entities are worthy. When you hear about their goals and what they’ve accomplished or what they want to do, you nod your head and you say, that’s good. But the reality is no organization has enough resources to meet all the legitimate needs of 3,500 groups that can have a big vision of what they would like to accomplish. 

Our fiscal year begins Sept. 1. We’re well into the process of building the fiscal year 2013 budget. We have a tight budget, and I’ve told people we’re making some hard decisions. We do have reserves that are reasonably healthy, but they’re healthy because we don’t waste them. Everything has to be prioritized. At the end of the day we have to decide what is the most important. 

CU: Roughly 60 percent of your revenues come from membership dues, yet at the same time it’s no secret the association’s membership has been shrinking in recent years. What’s been your strategy to reverse that?

JR: Most associations rely on dues for a third or even less of their general revenues. In 2007, our dues totaled about $70 million. Last year they were $61 million. But we had projected last year to be $59 million, so we did do better than we had projected.

Membership is critical to what we do. We had an organizational high of 416,000 members in 2007, and last year we were projected to go down to 376,000. We initiated a number of things over the last few years, and especially last year. We emphasized the need to get members and to have some creative ways they could join us. So instead of having 376,000 last year, we ended our fiscal year at 391,000. We were 15,000 more than the projections had been. And this year we’re on track to have more than 400,000 members. And we have some initiatives where I believe we can get membership into the future significantly above 400,000. That’s my goal. It helps us in all kinds of ways to increase the number of American lawyers who are members of the ABA.

I frequently meet with attorneys from all over the world. They’re amazed at how many lawyers we have. And I say, “But the American legal profession has about 1.2 million lawyers.” And frequently they’re shocked, because in many countries if you are a lawyer, you have to be a member. So I explain to them that many of our state bars are mandatory membership, but others are voluntary bars. We’re a voluntary bar, so we have to show value to people.

No lawyer has to be a member of the ABA, but there are some things only a national bar association can do. For example, the ABA vets federal judicial nominees for the White House. We’ve done that since the Eisenhower administration. We’ve got a standing committee on the federal judiciary that is given a heads-up on potential nominees. They very discreetly analyze the potential nominee and make a recommendation back to the White House. And frequently our people are called on to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee as a part of the confirmation process. 

We have an accreditation council that accredits the 200 ABA-approved law schools. And in just about every state now, you have to be a graduate of an ABA-accredited law school in order to be a member of the bar and be able to practice law. Only a national bar can do that. Our standards for professional responsibility, the ethical standards for lawyers, a national bar is obviously best suited for doing that. 

And, finally, we’re a 501(c)(6) organization. The reason we’re not a (c)(3) is principally because we have a lobbying arm. We’ve got a group of eight substantially full-time lobbyists who know how to work issues of importance to the legal profession on Capitol Hill, and those are things only a national bar can do.

CU: Has something changed in the profession where people are not finding a place in the association?

JR: It’s a different world. When I graduated from law school, I was honored to be able to join the ABA. I assumed that every lawyer joined the ABA. In those days, the ABA’s main method of communicating with their members was through the ABA Journal. Frankly, the ABA Journal back then was not the best read in the world, and it was my only communication with the ABA. So when I went from Korea to Greece to the Philippines, at some point in there I decided I didn’t want to renew my membership because that was my only tie, and for a number of years I was not a member of the ABA. 

What I found since I’ve come back, and especially in my current position for almost two years now, new lawyers don’t necessarily believe they should be joiners. They want to know, “Why is it important for me to be a member of the ABA?” And that’s where we have to show the value to them. 

There’s certainly an altruistic side, and when I talk to people who are our volunteer leaders and are passionate about the ABA, they tend to see why it’s important to the profession for lawyers to be members. But if you’re a young lawyer or a solo practitioner in a small town, then paying the dues could be a meaningful part of your monetary intake in a given period of time, so we have to show why that has value. 

Most law school faculties are 100 percent participants in an ABA membership program. But we’d like to really show the value to the students who can join all of our sections at no charge. We give a free membership to lawyers in their first year of practice, and then our job is to prove our value. It’s not enough to just have a certificate on the wall. Our best members are those who get actively involved.

We revamped [our website last] February. And we’re beginning to get more member-only pages so people can get information. And they see that as a benefit of membership.

In November of last year we started a premier [continuing legal education] program that has top-end lawyers who talk about a specialty area, and this gives an hour-and-a-half of CLE each month, so in the course of a year you can get 18 hours of free CLE. 

The first program we did we had very prominent attorneys, professors and legal commentators participate in the panel discussion for the webinar. We had a record number of people sign up for the webinar—more than 3,000 people. And the two that followed, we had more than 4,000 sign up for each of those. If you’re a member of the ABA, you get to do the CLE at no cost. If you’re not a member of the ABA, you can’t participate in it. And the value of that alone is worth more than the cost of anyone’s membership.

CU: Law schools have come under some fire over what was considered misleading data on job prospects for graduates. How you deal with something like that when it’s coming toward you?

JR: The critical thing is to be open and honest. We’re an association and our members are all volunteers, so almost everything we do should be fully transparent. In the law school arena, we would like to see law school affordable. And law school in context is affordable. That’s a separate whole discussion. Our house of delegates last summer passed resolutions encouraging more complete transparency by law schools—more openness and data. Some law schools have not done that and they’ve suffered some penalties when they’ve been caught.

The actual accreditation council is independent of the ABA, just like our standing committee that looks at federal judicial nominees does its work totally independently. We don’t second-guess their decisions, and unless there’s a question about the integrity of the process, we’re not going to get involved. 

When I first arrived at the ABA, I was in a number of meetings where people didn’t want to reveal certain things, and I told them, “Except for those matters that need to be confidential—for example, a personnel action—we’re open, we’re honest and we’re transparent.” So when we’ve had a problem, what I’ve tried to lead staff and work with volunteer leaders on, is if we did something wrong, apologize. If we need to investigate, let’s investigate. If we need to fix things, let’s fix things. Some people are still going to be upset about what we did wrong 11 years ago, but most people are willing to accept the fact that we understand we did it wrong, we apologized for it, we fixed it and we’re moving forward.

CU: Is the ABA too large and too decentralized to meet the changing needs of the profession? Are there elements that need to change —in terms of size and structure—to be nimble and address the needs of the future?

JR: Yes, if I were to describe all of our little challenges into one big challenge, it’s that. Are we the right organization? Our organizational structure is unusual. If we were creating the ABA from scratch, there are a lot of things we’d be doing differently. Our staff structure is functional, but I’m positive it’s not the best one. But if there were an ideal model, I would have already moved to it. I can make the current model work fine for us. At some point I’m positive we’re going to have a different organizational model for our staff.

The big issue you’ve asked about is, “Does it make sense to have a very large, robust ABA in today’s world?” And my answer is “yes” for the reasons that we need a national bar and for the things that we can do most effectively as a very large organization. We can represent the legal profession. We can do things for the legal profession that a boutique group could not do. We have our entities. They can serve those smaller group needs. And when I say “smaller groups,” I’m saying anything from a dozen people in one of our small entities to the 70,000 who are in our litigation section and the tens of thousands in the tax section. Whether they’re a dozen people or 70,000 people, they are valuable to the ABA and to what we represent, and I want people to feel comfortable with their home there.

Our publications just a couple of years ago were not taking advantage of today’s technology and were not doing things in the smartest way. We sometimes would publish a large number of books that wouldn’t sell that we would have to store and ultimately pay the price of pulverizing. In today’s world, we can publish closer to the right number of books and publish on demand additional books.

When I first arrived, a lot of people were talking about the perfect storm, both for the legal profession and for the ABA. For the profession it begins with the economic challenges we’ve had over the last four or five years, the economy in general, and for lawyers in particular, for law schools graduating very well qualified people who are either unemployed or underemployed, for law firms a few years ago that were laying people off. 

The ABA was finding less dues coming in, less revenue, fewer members. We weren’t doing very well with non-dues revenue. But I’m optimistic that with the quality of staff we have and the quality of our volunteer leaders, we’re approaching a perfect sunrise. That there is a bright day ahead of us and it’s going to be because we look at today’s challenges as an opportunity to look at how we’re doing things and doing it a lot more effectively than we were.