October 2017 letter from board chairs

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Dear fellow NACA members:

We’re writing to let you know that, starting today, new prospective members who apply to join NACA will use updated membership criteria and a new application and pledge, and will pledge to abide by a new Member Code of Conduct. These improvements are the culmination of 18 months of work and collaboration by your Board of Directors, a volunteer member taskforce, and NACA staff, and we’re excited to share them with you.

If you’ve already renewed your NACA membership this year, these changes will not affect you until your next renewal in 2018. But nonetheless, we want you to be in the loop on the who, what, when, why, and how of what we’ve been working on, what the new materials contain, and what our goals were in doing this.

As we’ve mentioned in our last two letters (in June 2017 and December 2016), in late 2015 the co-chairs of NACA’s Board (then Stuart Rossman and Stacy Bardo) commissioned a group of your fellow Board members and members to tackle how we could grow NACA’s community by expanding membership and improving member retention while staying true to our core mission. After hundreds of hours of collaboration, including 19 conference calls, the Membership Expansion Taskforce (co-chairs: Mike Quirk and Leslie Bailey; members: Josh Cohen, Kirsten Keefe, Dani Joy, Dave Phillips, Craig Rothburd, and Craig Shapiro; assisted by NACA’s wonderful former Membership Director, Jessica Hammond) presented its recommendations to the Board. The Board approved the updated membership criteria in August 2016 and the rest of the materials in June 2017. Since then, NACA staff have been working hard to get the new webpages and documents ready, and they’re now up and running.

1. WHEN will this affect me?

Starting October 2, 2017, new members will be subject to the updated criteria and the new Code of Conduct and will use the updated pledge and application. For current members, they’ll take effect at your next renewal, when you’ll be asked to pledge indicating that you meet the updated criteria and will abide by the Code of Conduct. The new renewal period will start in May 2018.

2. WHY are we focused on growing NACA’s membership?

There are two main reasons. First, the bigger our membership, the more of an impact we as a community can have for consumer justice. This is about making NACA a more effective player on the national scene, as the champion for consumers at a time when they are under attack from so many places. For the last two years, NACA’s membership has hovered between 1,500 and 1,600. With such a small membership, staff resources are necessarily limited too. NACA has accomplished a ton with a staff of 5–6 outstanding people. But imagine our legislative advocates being able to go to meetings on the Hill and say, “I represent an organization of 10,000 consumer advocates.” We believe NACA has the capacity to be a vast, more powerful network and the nationally respected voice for consumers and consumer advocates. To get there, we need to grow while still maintaining our excellence and strong community of trust.

Second, NACA’s financial future depends on growth. When NACA was founded, it was a small group of dedicated advocates joining together as they established what was truly a new area of legal practice. But now, NACA can’t afford to be such a small club. We are cognizant of not just placing a greater financial burden on our current membership, most of which is made up of solo and legal aid practitioners. With other sources of income, such as cy pres awards, winnowing, we need to expand our membership to ensure that NACA is vibrant and effective well into the future.

We know there are many advocates out there who represent or may want to represent consumers, but who are not NACA members—either because they don’t know about us, or they don’t feel welcome in our community. We need to change both of those things. Growing membership in a strategic—and yet careful—way will make NACA stronger.

3. HOW will these changes help grow our community and encourage members to stay in NACA?

NACA is, at its heart, a community: a safe place where colleagues can seek advice, share expertise, make friends, and join forces to advocate for our clients. When newcomers seek us out, our public face should be welcoming. We want potential members to see that this is a special community they WANT to be a part of.

But despite many people’s good intentions and best efforts, NACA’s previous membership criteria were unclear on critical issues and weren’t being implemented consistently. Our previous online membership application process illustrates the problem: a person who wanted to join NACA was directed to several different, overlapping sources of detailed information on different webpages (some of which were recommendations that hadn’t ever been approved as actual membership criteria), making it impossible to easily tell what the requirements for membership were.

In addition, there was no formalized process—or a timeline—for reviewing new applications. Once someone submitted an application for membership, it could take weeks—or even months—for a final decision. Often several rounds of follow-up questions were asked and additional research done by staff or members, all without the applicant ever being directly told what the requirements for membership were. While it’s impossible to know how many potential members were turned away by the combination of confusing guidelines and an onerous process, it’s easy to see why many have found the process confusing at best—and discouraging at worst.

So we’ve done our best to fix all that. The updated criteria are simple and transparent. We’ve taken the core standards that we’ve always had for members, and clarified them so that they can be applied fairly and consistently—without making any major substantive changes. Our hope is that this will prevent arbitrary decision-making and frustrating delays, make it easier for both member leaders and staff to process membership applications, and make NACA more welcoming to new members.

At the same time, we expect all NACA members to treat each other with respect and to adhere to high standards of professional responsibility, confidentiality, and integrity in our interactions, so that all members feel safe—and want to stay in NACA. We also want to ensure that when consumers, potential clients, attorneys, judges, journalists, and members of the public see the NACA badge, they can trust that each ambassador for the organization is an authentic member of this respected consumer advocacy community. This is why we’re implementing a new Code of Conduct.

4. WHAT are the Membership Criteria, Code of Conduct, etc.?

Starting today, the membership application and renewal process is simpler. New applicants—and current members renewing—will be required to sign a pledge affirming that they (1) meet the requirements for membership and (2) intend to abide by the Code of Conduct. Both the criteria and the code are posted for everyone to see. The application asks only the questions necessary to determine whether an applicant meets the membership requirements, nothing more. This way, new applicants—and existing members—can see whether or not they’re eligible. We’re hoping that by implementing membership criteria that are clear, transparent, fair, and consistent, we’ll make NACA more welcoming to potential newcomers. We also want to be clear that, as ambassadors for NACA, all members are expected to abide by certain standards. Of course, we recognize that there will still be gray areas as to whether or not certain applicants qualify for membership so we have established a procedure to ensure that applications are consistently vetted by NACA staff and our state chairs and member leaders.

The core requirement of NACA membership continues to be that members not perform services for any client on a matter where the client’s interests are adverse to the interests of a consumer or consumers. As before, representation of businesses in other matters does not necessarily disqualify a person from joining NACA, but it depends on the type of business, the type of cases, and other circumstances. Law students and some non-lawyer consumer advocates will continue to be welcome in NACA. The criteria also make clear that failing to provide truthful answers to application questions is grounds for denial of membership. On the most difficult issues, the criteria recognize that multiple factors need to be considered to enable NACA to make judgment calls where necessary on a case-by-case basis—but everything that can be spelled out in black and white has been.

In general, there is nothing in the updated criteria that was not already being used as a factor in deciding whether someone is eligible to join NACA. In other words, if you already meet the old criteria, you don’t need to worry that you won’t meet the updated criteria. We’ve just made the criteria explicit and removed any restrictions on membership that did not directly promote NACA’s mission of advancing the cause of just treatment for and ethical representation of consumers.

These updated criteria will apply to current members the next time you renew your membership and sign a new pledge.

NACA, like other organizations, now has a formal Member Code of Conduct. Pursuant to the Code of Conduct, NACA members must pledge that they are committed to NACA’s mission and agree to uphold the law and professional standards; to refrain from discrimination and harassment; to protect each other’s privacy and the confidentiality of information obtained from listservs and at events; and to understand and strive to abide by all NACA practice guidelines applicable to their practice areas (at present, these are the Class Action Guidelines and the Debt Settlement Guidelines). In addition, the Code of Conduct requires that members not use or promote pre-dispute arbitration clauses in consumer contracts and places limits on the use of the NACA Member Badge.

While we imagine all current members are already acting in accordance with the NACA Code of Conduct, the code won’t officially apply to you until next time you renew your membership and sign a new pledge.

The questions on the “background” section of the new application simply reflect the updated membership criteria. In other words, if something isn’t relevant to eligibility for NACA membership—for instance, whether an attorney has ever been subject to discipline by her bar association—we no longer ask about it on the application. Instead, all standards related to professional responsibility are reflected in the Member Code of Conduct.

Likewise, the pledge that all new and renewing members must sign, rather than duplicating all or some of the membership criteria and Code of Conduct, simply incorporates them.

While the existing application vetting process remains intact, we’ve made it explicit so that it will be clear who is responsible for each step in the process. We’re also implementing target deadlines for each step to make sure applications are processed promptly and that new members won’t wait for months to have a decision on their application.

5. WHO can I contact with questions or concerns?

If you have any questions or concerns about any of this, we encourage you to reach out to Leslie and Stacy (your Board co-chairs, whose contact information is at the end of this letter), any Board member, or your state chair. You can find contact information for all the Board members online. If you don’t know who your state chair is or how to contact him or her, please email membership@consumeradvocates.org. While we’ll do our best to respond to all questions as quickly as possible, if time permits, we will also set aside some time to answer questions at the upcoming Annual Meeting, which will be on November 17, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

We look forward to seeing many of you in D.C., and until then, our best wishes and heartfelt thanks for your support in NACA.

Very truly yours,

Leslie Bailey & Stacy Bardo
Co-Chairs, NACA Board of Directors

Leslie can be reached at lbailey@publicjustice.net or 510-622-8203.
Stacy can be reached at stacy@bardolawpc.com or 312-219-6980.