Perhaps the biggest news out of the 2017 International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) Conference happened before it even started.

ILTA describes itself as a “volunteer led, staff managed association with a focus on premiership.”

ILTA is primarily made up of large law firms and better known legal technology vendors. At this year’s conference, for example, there were lots of legal professionals from well known and well heeled law firms, few legal start ups and few practicing lawyers.

A year ago, ILTA lost its Executive Director to retirement right before its annual Conference. In March of this year, Dan Liutikas was named Chief Executive Officer. Dan was formerly with CompTIA, also a trade association for the information technology industry. He has a reputation for innovation and decisiveness.

In one of his first public acts, on Friday, August 4, the virtual eve of this year’s conference, ILTA let go Peggy Wechsler, the Director of Programs and Strategic Relationships who was the primary organizer of the annual conferences since 1998.

To many, she was the face of the organization.

ILTA also let go Clay Gibney, who was the IT Director since 2009 and Deb Himsel, Director of Learning who also had been there since 2009. In short, Dan cleaned house.

I must confess I had not attended ILTACon before this year although my firm is a member. But the ILTA is a non profit organization ran by a Board. It was founded as a “peer to peer” organization for the primary benefit of its members. And like many such organizations, there are long and deep rooted relationships among the membership and the staff. That plus the fact that the dismissals occurred literally on the eve of the Association’s biggest annual Conference made this Friday massacre all the more attention grabbing and disrupting.

Dan, Meredith Williams and Angela Dowd, both ILTA Board members spoke (well sort of) for the first time publicly about the firings in a video Town Hall meeting on August 9, 2017 and answered questions. And as you might expect, while Dan and team termed the dismissals as a private matter that they didn’t think they should comment on, what they did say was instructive.

First, Williams officially took the blame on the part of the Board for Dan’s apparently lack of substantive communication with the membership before now.

According to Williams, the Board hadn’t filled Dan in sufficiently about the need for communications, the culture of the organization and its “family” atmosphere.

But Dan came from CompTIA, also a non profit trade association and presumably was aware of how these kinds of associations work and the relationships that are so vital to making them health and viable. And you have to wonder about the “family atmosphere” of a non profit that summarily fires 3 key longtime employees on the eve of the its biggest conference, a conferance that one of its family members had put together. A conference where most of the membership– many of who knew these employees very well–would be together.

Not to mention that this is not the type of distraction any organization would or should want right before its big event.

And the dismissals apparently took place without much Board involvement; according to Williams, the Board is not typically consulted about “staff” decisions by the CEO although in this case there was a “discussion” at the Board level about 1 of the fired employees. Williams couldn’t or wouldn’t say much else. And if the Board wasn’t involved, obviously the membership-the backbone of the so called volunteer led organization- wasn’t involved either. Indeed, the actions have stirred up the membership and let to lots of discussions; a long time member recently posted an open letter on LinkedIn raising numerous questions and concerns.

Certainly Dan, to his credit, was prepared in the Town Hall to talk some about the new directions of the Association and the challenges it faces. Clearly, he was not happy about some of the performance indicators he was seeing within the organization. And sometimes, to take any organization in a new direction, it’s necessary to make hard and sometimes brutal change: when changes are needed, sometimes its good to do them quick and damn the timing. And Williams is right, Boards shouldn’t involve themselves too much in the management of an organization.

But non profits are different. While Boards shouldn’t dictate one would expect notice and discussion at the Board level when wholesale changes are made, particularly on the eve of the Conference. And the need for the Board to take the blame for lack of communication of the Association’s CEO? Also seems odd. Having been involved in and leading non profits over the years, both they and trade associations thrive on transparency. This smacks of the opposite.

There were lots of good things coming out of ILTACon this year. Lots of top notch speakers. Lots of new product announcements. Lots of relationships to re-kindle. But with all the good, the under the breath talk of the Conference was the August 4 massacre, the timing of which was certainly not impeccable.

Photo attribution: David Joyce via flickr