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President's Letter: In Praise of Lowering the Bar

We recently rearranged my five-year-old’s closet so the hanging rod would be low enough for her to reach. This has been a game-changer for our morning routine because now she can get herself dressed without any assistance from us. She’s also felt newly empowered by having the autonomy to organize her clothes as she sees fit. I shared this experience on Instagram and a friend commented, “sometimes, you just need to lower the bar.” Indeed.

When gearing up for my presidency, people would often ask me questions like, “What’s going to be your big thing?” It felt vulnerable to say, “Well my ‘big thing’ is that I want to make things smaller, more streamlined, and more efficient.” But that is what I felt was most needed.

My Intend to Thrive theme emphasizes quality over quantity and shifts the focus away from what we have been doing so we can think more strategically about what we should be doing. And while the concept of *lowering* the bar might seem anathema to a group of hardworking, ambitious women lawyers, sometimes it is the right answer.

Lowering the bar in the context of the CWBA means a few things to me:

We can’t be all things to all people.

Many times, when speaking to prospective CWBA members, I’ve said things like “there’s something for everyone!” And that actually isn’t true. While there are many different ways for members to engage – from attending a social event, to volunteering to help plan an educational program, to testifying at the legislature, to writing for this very blog – it is not the case that we offer every possible experience or opportunity that someone might want. We have a clear niche as a group for women lawyers[1] that seeks to advance women as leaders in the law.

In Priya Parker’s phenomenal book, The Art of Gathering, she explains the concept of “tightness of fit.” Using the example of online Meetup groups, she explains that a group called “LGBT couples hiking with dogs” is likely to be more successful than “LGBT couples hiking” or “couples hiking with dogs.” Specificity “draw[s] out a sense of togetherness and identity and welcomeness and belonging.” While homing in on a specific focus seems like it goes against the goal of inclusivity, it actually has the opposite effect. For us, this means a careful focus on serving our mission of advancing women as leaders in the law.

Fewer events and a more spacious calendar.

An important takeaway from our recent membership survey was that CWBA puts on an overwhelming number of events. A focus this year is thinking critically about each event and its timing. I’ve been meeting with the committee co-chairs to talk through each event they have in mind while carefully reviewing the CWBA calendar to select dates. We’re experimenting with using a color-coded internal calendar to signal how much a given event requires in terms of CWBA resources and member attention. While a monthly committee meeting is colored light green, the weeks leading up to our Annual Convention are filled with dark red, signaling “SCHEDULE NOTHING DURING THIS TIME.”

I’ve also challenged the committee co-chairs to “think beyond the event.” For example, when meeting with the newly merged Membership and Mentorship Committee, we talked about shifting away from being a party planning committee and focusing more on member satisfaction and how to foster mentoring relationships between members.

An environment that fosters creativity and experimentation.

Another benefit of lowering the bar is taking the pressure off and letting go of perfectionism. Any time you try something new, there’s a very real possibility that it won’t work out the way you hoped. It’s often easier to stick with the schedule or format we’ve used in the past even when there are good reasons to mix things up.

One priority of mine has been to make Board meetings more fun with more opportunities for connection. To me, this meant picking an environment more vibrant than a law firm conference room and making the remote option call-in rather than video conference. When I set the first Board meeting at Hamburger Mary’s in Uptown, there was a real chance that most people would roll their eyes at the thought of showing up to an in-person meeting and opt for the phone instead. Fortunately, it ended up being a great success and cultivated exactly the kind of fun and connection I was hoping for.

At the Summer Social this week, we are mixing things up by including the Committee Showcase in this event rather than in the Fall as in years past. Our thought was to harness the energy and interest coming off of Convention and to recruit new committee volunteers earlier in the Board year. Who knows exactly how it will turn out, but I am glad we are giving it a try. (You can find out in real time by registering here!) We are considering a few changes to other events as well. And we are still determining how best to engage in the judicial nomination process. It helps me to think of everything as a work in progress, with the understanding that while some of our experiments may fail, we will learn from them and continue to iterate and innovate as we go.

A sense of ease.

A significant part of the Intend to Thrive theme is to have a thriving Board, thriving committees, and thriving staff. I’m hopeful that doing less with more intention will mean that everyone who invests their time in the CWBA will find it fulfilling and meaningful. While we do work very hard to make this organization what it is, we want to be sure we are working *smart* too, so we may all maintain a sense of purpose, balance, and joy.

How about you? Have you set any expectations for yourself that feel like they are draining you more than they are serving you? Just in case you need to hear this today, you have my full permission to lower the bar and let go.




[1] While we are a group for women lawyers and women lawyers make up the majority of our membership, many of our members do not identify as women and many of our members are allied legal professionals, not lawyers or law students.


We would love for you to engage in our thriving community! You can find out more about our committees here, or by attending our Summer Social and Committee Showcase on Thursday, July 27 at 5:30pm at Sherman & Howard.

And while this post focuses on *lowering* the bar, honoring women who have made a difference by *raising the bar* is also crucially important. The year’s “Raising the Bar” dinner put on by the CWBA Foundation will celebrate "Women Who Raise the Bar by Fostering Well-Being In The Legal Profession." This is such an important topic and this year’s honorees have made next-level contributions to our community. I hope to see you all there on September 7th at the Denver Athletic Club!


Emma Garrison is an Assistant Attorney General in the Tax Unit of the Colorado Department of Law. Emma joined the CWBA in 2014, and has previously served as Co-Chair of the Convention, Membership, and Judicial Committees, and as the CWBA Secretary. She has also held many leadership positions in the Colorado legal community over the years, including Chair of the Colorado Bar Association Young Lawyers Division and Senior Vice-President of the Colorado Bar Association. Last year, Emma hosted On What Grounds?, CWBA’s virtual leadership café, and currently serves as the CWBA President.

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