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PA Bar Governors Vote to Disband Pa Bar Institute

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | May 3, 2018

No. 1,484

In a surprise move the Pennsylvania Bar Association Board of Governors voted to disband the PBI.

Here is the full article, published in Law 360, this evening.

Pennsylvania Bar To Dissolve Its Legal Education Arm

A mid-April vote to dismiss PBI’s governing body and wind up the organization came in response to a performance audit that Sharon Lopez, the bar association’s current president, said had uncovered what she called severe financial problems that required immediate action to begin to address.

But Dennis Whitaker, a partner at Hawke McKeon & Sniscak LLP who was removed as the president of PBI’s board of directors as a result of last month’s vote, told Law360 on Thursday that the takeover plan had come as both a complete surprise and despite what he said were viable plans to right the institute’s finances.

“The action was unexpected and we all felt it was unwarranted,” he said. “We were on a path to turn the organization around.”

Whitaker said that the bar association’s move to dissolve and absorb the institute, which has provided continuing legal education programming as an independent entity for more than half a century, was unveiled at a meeting between the leadership teams of the two organizations on April 11.

“We had no notice this was coming,” Whitaker said.

A week later, on April 18, the bar association’s board of governors voted to approve the proposal.

Ousted as part of the dissolution of the board were a number of legal luminaries in Pennsylvania, including two judges on the state’s Commonwealth Court.

“This isn’t a fly-by-night bunch of people,” Whitaker said. “It wasn’t like this was a bunch of people who had no clue about what to do.”

Also out following the shake-up was PBI’s full-time Executive Director Richard McCoy, who had spent close to 40 years at the institute.

“I think it was very disappointing,” McCoy said.

Other members of PBI’s now-disbanded board said they were similarly taken by surprise at news of the organization’s dissolution.

“I was shocked,” said Daniel Siegel, the head of a three-attorney firm outside Philadelphia who said he served on the PBI board for about a year and a half before it was dissolved last month. “There were rumors that something might happen, but I don’t think anyone expected it.”

Whitaker said the ultimate decision to abolish PBI had been a surprise, but he said he was aware of ongoing concerns from the bar association’s leadership about several years’ worth of red ink for the organization.

After two consecutive years in which Lopez, the head of Lancaster-based Triquetra Law, said PBI had been forced to tap into reserve funding to the tune of some half a million dollars, she said that the bar association’s board voted in January to begin a performance audit.

A final report returned at the beginning of April, she said, revealed significant problems.

“What we saw when we looked at the audit was the need for a nimble change, the need for an immediate change and the need for leadership that had more urgency to it than what we were witnessing,” she said.

She admitted that the decision to dissolve PBI came quickly, but she said it underscored the severity of the institute’s financial problems.

“The fact that it was done that expeditiously should be an indicator of how serious and impactful the findings were in the audit,” Lopez said, adding that she personally reached out to members of the board after the vote and sent a letter aimed at explaining the move.

The shake-up was not formally announced, however, until PBA issued a press release on Thursday a day after being contacted by Law360 about the institute’s dissolution.

At the heart of PBI’s recent financial woes, both Lopez and Whitaker agreed, was the rapidly evolving marketplace for continuing legal education programming across the country.

With continuing legal education credits being offered for free or at extremely low cost by law firms and other organizations, and with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s move in recent years to allow more credits to be notched through online programming, they said that there was less appetite for the sort of comprehensive, in-person training traditionally put on by PBI.

“That all started to eat into PBI’s bottom line,” Whitaker said.

But Lopez said that the bar association’s concerns about PBI’s financial performance had been clearly communicated to the organization for years and there had been quarterly meetings between leaders of the two groups to discuss the problem.

“We definitely had been meeting with the officers,” she said. “We definitely had been giving them our concerns about it and had been asking very pointed questions about their business model and marketing strategies and plans for change.”

Where PBI’s former leadership team and Lopez disagree, however, is on whether the institute was in the right position to evolve with the marketplace.

McCoy said PBI had put significant resources in recent years to updating its software and revamping its website to offer on-demand continuing legal education programs that could be streamed online.

“We had put all of the infrastructure in place to compete in this new marketplace that we’ve come into, and we were poised to do that,” he said. “I think the bar association sort of ran out of patience.”

At the heart of the move, Lopez said, was a desire to preserve the high-quality programming that PBI has become known for over the years.

“It’s important to us that it exists and that it continue to provide the gold standard education that lawyers and consumers have come to expect,” she said.

What exactly continuing legal education offerings through the bar association will look like after PBI is formally dissolved later this year, however, remains unclear.

“The way I envision it is the big picture changes will likely include some reduction in the diversity of [continuing legal education]; it might include some reduction in live programming of [continuing legal education] in multiple locations; it might include greater access to simulcast or downloading of [continuing legal education],” she said. “We’re not at a point where I can even tell you what that would look like, because we’re still in the assessment period.”

Whatever changes might be needed to right the operation’s finances, Siegel said he hopes that the quality of PBI’s brand will not be effected.

“The PBI name is an important name,” he said. “It is and has always been considered one of the finest providers of [continuing legal education] in the country, and I don’t want to see anything happen to that name.”

–Editing by Stephen Berg.

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CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 40 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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