The National Bar Association's highly regarded executive director reflects on career milestones, the evolution of diversity in the legal profession, and passing the torch.
(L to R) John Crump, NBA executive director, visits with former NBA president Kim Keenan.
After three decades as executive director of the National Bar Association (NBA), John Crump finds himself looking back on his time at the helm of the revered organization, as well as thinking about the next stage of his professional life. “I’m not retiring. I’m redefining work,” he confides playfully. “At the moment I’m fielding several new prospects, and I’ll make a decision on them sometime between now and when the search for my successor at the NBA is complete. Wherever I end up, it won’t be everyday or nine-to-five. While I do enjoy golf and spending time at my second home in New Mexico, I cannot imagine a life without work.”
With its network of 44,000 members representing African American members of the bar who are lawyers, judges, law professors, and law students, the NBA strives to advance the science of jurisprudence, preserve the independence of the judiciary, and to uphold the honor and integrity of the legal profession. As executive director of the NBA, Crump’s key challenges over the years have been to attract and retain members by consistently delivering a relevant and stimulating annual convention, to help elected NBA presidents set goals and successfully contend with timely issues, and to keep the association afloat financially. First organized in 1925, the Washington, DC-based association has been on the forefront of matters of concern to African American attorneys, addressing issues such as voting rights, desegregation, the war on poverty, and affirmative action to name but a few.
While Crump is not averse to change within the NBA, he modestly acknowledges that his successor might find it challenging to master some facets of the position. “As NBA executive you have to deal with many, many bosses. There’s a newly elected president every year [including the NBA’s 66th president, Rodney G. Moore], and a large, ever-changing board. It takes a special kind of temperament – or perhaps a lack thereof, depending who you talk to,” he laughs. “From the outside, it might not always look so hard, but it’s definitely not easy.”
After 30 years at the tiller of what sometimes has been an undermanned and cumbersome vessel, Crump is proud particularly of how he helped to put the NBA on sound footing financially. He accomplished this goal initially by securing grants, and later by creating a constant revenue stream by institutionalizing yearly events (such as the association’s Gertrude E. Rush award dinner and the annual corporate counsel meeting in February) to complement the association’s cornerstone event – its summer conference. Through decades of planning and implementation, Crump has successfully built a managerial structure that allows for an operation that focuses on professional enhancement for its members.
As NBA executive director, Crump strives to provide a unique summer conference experience, making sure it offers African American attorneys something they cannot get elsewhere. In addition to what many members consider unparalleled networking, the annual meeting provides the opportunity for lawyers to meet their continuing legal education (CLE) requirements for the year (as an added service, the NBA keeps track of those hours). “In a volunteer organization, it’s important to create a dependency among the members,” explains Crump. “Without that, there is no guarantee of continuity.
“As we reach our goals, more and more African American attorneys are being hired by firms and corporate legal departments,” notes Crump. He warns, however, that “it’s important not to forget the solo practitioners and their interests. About half of our membership has been and continues to be solo practitioners, many of whom practice in small towns.”
When Crump joined the NBA in 1978, there were not enough African Americans lawyers in the nation to fund the organization. To make the NBA financially viable, he pursued grants and contracts from the Department of Commerce and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Once solvent, the NBA was able to concentrate on driving up membership and making an impact by loaning money needed for civil rights attorneys to pursue discrimination cases.
Crump became well-versed in the language of grants and contracts through invaluable experience acquired early in his career. He served as special assistant to the director of Washington, D.C.’s, newly formed Department of Health and Human Services, and later was an assistant to Phillip Rutledge, then serving as director of the American Society of Public Administrators, also in D.C., before returning to Houston to work in the mayor’s office. Crump reflects, “The people I met and skills I picked up along the way all contributed to my personal success at NBA and the overall success of the organization. Without that knowledge, we would have never grown into what we have become.”
Past NBA presidents are familiar with Crump’s constant service to the association, and they realize that filling his formidable shoes will be no easy task. “Technically, someone can probably learn the job,” shares Kim Keenan, a D.C.-based solo practitioner specializing in medical malpractice and past NBA president (2004 – 2005), “but to find someone who is genuinely invested in the organization's mission won’t be so easy. John Crump is part statesman and part magician. By using his own resources, working longer hours, and doing his own fundraising when necessary, he makes the association look like it’s running on a budget at least double the actual budget.”
Paulette Brown, another past NBA president (and currently an employment law partner in Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge LLP’s New Jersey office), agrees. She notes, “In some respects, John Crump is the unsung hero of the NBA. Based on his skill set and experience, he undoubtedly was offered opportunities to work elsewhere for a lot more money, yet he remained at the NBA. He has consistently demonstrated a true love for the organization.
“I really got to know Crump well during my two years as NBA president-elect and president [1992 through 1994],” Brown continues. “He worked with me as a partner, and luckily I had the good sense to recognize that he knew a lot more than I did about meeting planning and the organization business. His knowledge in these areas is truly expansive.”
Dennis W. Archer, a prominent Michigan-based attorney and politician, as well as past NBA president (1983) and current chairman and member of Dickinson Wright, PLLC, concurs. “To be involved with the NBA over the years has been a walk through history, and there in the middle of it all was one man: John Crump.
“John’s professional contacts in Washington and around the country have allowed him to book top-notch keynote speakers at NBA events throughout his career, including the late pioneering entertainment lawyer David Franklin and then-governor Bill Clinton shortly after he broke out on the national scene,” he continues. “His high degree of professionalism has enabled Crump to open doors for the NBA. Under the Reagan administration, a lot of NBA’s federal grants dried up. In search of replacement funding, we made a successful presentation to the Ford Foundation. It wouldn’t have happened without him.”
Crump’s formative years were graced with a loving family and supportive mentors. He grew up on a farm in the green rolling hills of La Grange, Texas. “We were a large extended family — my mother and her twin sister built their houses just fifty yards apart – and all of the cousins were welcome in both homes,” he recalls. “You ate where you got hungry, and slept wherever you fell asleep.”
As a teenager, Crump worked at Rexall’s drug store on the La Grange town square. Paid to make deliveries and sweep up, he also was trusted with his own set of keys to the business – pretty heady stuff for a 14-year-old. Working on the square proved particularly fortuitous for Crump. “I was in a position to meet all of the town’s professional men who were in and out of the drug store throughout the day,” he shares. “These men came to know me and, when I graduated from high school as salutatorian and class president, they took notice. When the chairman of the school board, a medical doctor I knew from Rexhall’s, handed me my high school diploma, he promised me quietly, ‘Someday there will be equal opportunity for everyone.’ Coming out of a segregated school system, I wasn’t sure exactly how to envision what he meant. That same man paid my tuition and room and board throughout my four years of college at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston, where I double-majored in biology and psychology.”
After college, Crump worked for a year as a computer programmer at NASA before returning to his alma mater to study law. At TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, he focused on legal services. When he graduated in 1970, “my goal was to take my law degree to the managerial side, and that’s exactly what I’ve done,” explains Crump. “Within every organization, somebody around the table needs to have a law degree. My niche, from the standpoint of managing programs, has always been to make sure that people are able to get the help they need, and to facilitate change.”
“To be involved with the NBA over the years has been a walk through history, and there in the middle of it all was one man: John Crump.”
–Dennis W. Archer
Crump’s introduction to the NBA came when he attended his first annual meeting at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach in 1972. “I’d never seen so many African American attorneys under one roof,” he remembers. “At the time, there were about 4,000 African American attorneys nationwide, and 350 to 400 of them were at the meeting. That year, a new NBA women’s division was the hot topic. I clearly recall the six or seven women who pressed for the new division, and while it didn’t pass without resistance – remember the NBA is not an ideologically homogeneous group – it did pass. For me, just two years out of law school, it was an exciting time, and the meeting offered all kinds of possibilities. To be rubbing shoulders with big-name African American lawyers from across the country was a big thrill for me.”
Archer was first introduced to the NBA at about the same time as Crump, and his early impressions are equally as vivid: “I’d never seen so many African American lawyers in one place. You might enter a suite, and there would be civil rights giants George Crockett Jr., and Thurgood Marshall holding court, surrounded by a roomful of rapt young attorneys.”
Despite his affection for the association, Crump was not entirely convinced when he was asked to join the NBA as interim executive director in May of 1978. “I was born for association development,” reflects Crump. “People like me are called ‘association junkies.’ Nonetheless, when then-NBA president Mark T. MacDonald first approached me 30 years ago about joining the organization, I said ‘no.’”
“I’d been in associations long enough to know that, when you’re director, some people are going to not like you because you wear a bow tie and others aren’t going to like you because you can tie it,” he remembers. “So the prospect of dealing with a 56-person board, 16-person executive committee, and a new president every year was a bit daunting. I didn’t really want the job initially, but fate decided otherwise.”
Just prior to joining the NBA as its executive director, Crump was working with the Houston mayor’s office as a Carnegie fellow. He also was serving as campaign manager for a law-school classmate running for state legislature in Texas. He saw a future for himself in Houston. When his candidate lost the election, Crump’s plans were upended. Unsure what to do next, he accepted MacDonald’s offer to be the NBA’s interim executive director and moved to Washington.
Hired in May with a convention coming up in late July, Crump had no choice but to be a quick study. That first annual conference was, almost literally, a baptism by fire. “The hotel was almost rented out from under us; all of the convention’s registration materials and programs were lost, but turned up at the eleventh hour; and, just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, there was a fire in the exhibit hall,” recalls Crump with good humor – made possible, no doubt, by the passage of time. “Despite the lingering smell of smoke, things went on as planned. Many participating lawyers [today] say that it was the best NBA conference ever.” At the association’s first board meeting following the conference, the board members made Crump an offer he describes as “too good to refuse,” and “interim” was no longer an antecedent to his executive director title.
The 1970s proved to be a turbulent time in American political and social culture, and many developments presented opportunities for change. Notable among such events was the Bakke decision in 1978, in which the Supreme Court outlawed quota programs on the grounds that they violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution, yet allowed colleges to use race as a factor in making decisions in college admissions. In the years following the Bakke decision, the number of African American law students – and, in turn, attorneys – began to grow.
It was during this time that Crump steadfastly worked to improve the professional development services that the NBA offered to members. He also worked hard to increase the influence of the organization across the country. “The NBA doesn’t lobby, but could if we were so inclined. Our tax status is 501(c)(6),” explains Crump. “We call what we do ‘information dissemination.’ Our membership is not politically uniform; a quarter of our members identify as Republican, but Democratic administrations are more sympathetic to our cause. When Carter was elected we hoped he might appoint 17 or 18 federal judges. He appointed 38.”
The NBA did not officially endorse President-Elect Barack Obama; nonetheless, many of its members, including Crump, are ecstatic with his victory. “Having grown up in the segregated Southwest, I never foresaw, in my lifetime, an African American candidate winning the White House,” shares Crump. “A while back, we featured Mr. Obama in our magazine as the senator of Illinois and a past member of the NBA. Who knew then that he would one day be president?”
Through decades of planning and implementation, Crump has successfully built a managerial structure that allows for an operation that focuses on professional enhancement for its members.
When first counseling an NBA president-elect, Crump suggests that he or she concentrate on accomplishing one or two things while in office. Over the years, he has observed that when NBA presidents set too many goals and spread themselves too thin, very little gets accomplished. History demonstrates that NBA presidents who take this wisdom to heart are able to make a lasting impact on the association. As an example, during Paulette Brown’s year as president, she concentrated on federal judgeships and leading a group to observe South Africa’s first election in which blacks voted. Similarly, Dennis Archer worked with Crump to buy the association’s permanent residence in Washington.
Michael Rosier, of the Law Offices of Rosier and Associates in Washington, D.C., and Largo, Maryland, notes, “My installation as NBA president was in August of 2001. When 9/11 took place and everything changed, we had to deal with the ramifications of that time. We addressed power grabs and the use of terrorism to modify individual freedoms.”
“I first went to an NBA meeting in 1978 – John’s first year [as executive director],” continues Rosier. “He was always good at what he does. But working with him as president, I learned that he was truly the anchor of the organization. NBA presidents came and went. John was an institution.”
One of Crump’s unique skills is his ability to ascertain each president’s strengths and utilize them for the good of the organization. He impresses upon presidents and individual members alike that the NBA is a collective. The ongoing success of the organization is what matters most. “As past NBA presidents,” reflects Kim Keenan, “we were lucky to be exposed to John’s selfless leadership style. He taught us that the head of an association is only as strong as its body, and many of us have taken it on to other leadership positions.” For example, Dennis Archer went on to become the first African American president of American Bar Association, and Keenan is currently president-elect of the DC Bar.
“In my day, there was typically a gap between college and law school when the individual worked at something other than law. Now that’s not usually the case, and it’s up to the old guard to teach the next generation that things don’t change overnight . . .”
“Today’s younger African American attorneys are different from their predecessors,” observes Crump. “When they become a part of NBA leadership, they don’t have much world experience and they’re impatient. In my day, there was typically a gap between college and law school when the individual worked at something other than law. Now that’s not usually the case, and it’s up to the old guard to teach the next generation that things don’t change overnight, and they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Ultimately I represent the NBA, and I always have to come out on the institution’s side.”
Crump concedes that he has critics among the membership, but notes that “it goes with the territory. Some of them don’t like my style. They think I talk too loud,” he says with a shrug. “I think they’re too thin-skinned.” Admirers contend that, with very little staff and so much to do, Crump is simply too busy to coddle members. Their advice is for the disgruntled to get over it, and not let any imagined slights detract them from appreciating Crump’s many achievements.
As the conclusion of Crump’s remarkable tenure as executive director draws near, he looks to the future. He regards the NBA Crump Law Camp (a two-week summer program that provides minority high school students with an introduction to the American judicial system) as the biggest accomplishment of his career, and he intends to remain a part of it long after leaving the association’s formal employ. “The NBA believes that we need to grow lawyers, and that we need to start early. Some of the former campers have graduated from college. Soon some of them will finish law school.” (For more information on the Crump Law Camp, see the Vocation/Avocation column appearing in the July/August 2008 issue of Diversity & the Bar®.)
Although Crump believes an economic downtown could bode ill for African American attorneys in particular (“The last in are sometimes the first to go”), he is not concerned about the health or vigor of the association. “From experience, I know that during bad times our membership increases. When African American attorneys are out of work, they want to know what’s going on, and the NBA is the first place they go.”
For John Crump, serving as executive director of the NBA has been more than a job or a title. As one of the past presidents says, “Wherever he goes, he lives and breathes the NBA in the framework and fabric of his life,” says Kim Keenan. “He will always be an ambassador for the NBA.” As long as the association continues to serve the African American legal community with a passionate and innovative spirit, Crump’s contributions to its development and character will continue to make a difference. DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the January/February 2009 issue of Diversity & The Bar®