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A legacy of service: An interview with retiring OSBA Executive Director Denny L. Ramey (+video)

By Stephanie Beougher

On July 1, Denny Ramey will end his 33-year career at the Ohio State Bar Association. Since 1980, Ramey has been part of the OSBA, serving as its executive director for 28 of those years. He is nationally recognized as an innovative bar leader, focusing on providing service to the Association’s members, the public at large and the profession as a whole. In addition to his duties as OSBA executive director, Ramey also served as an officer and board member of many OSBA affiliated organizations. He oversees a staff of 70, an annual budget of $12 million and a membership totaling nearly 29,000 members.

Q: Take us back to how you became assistant executive director of the Ohio State Bar Association in 1980. What was your background before you came here?

A:
I graduated from Ohio University with a degree in business administration. I came to Columbus and didn’t have a job. I became the administrative manager of a public warehouse on Columbus’ west side. Didn’t really enjoy that job but stayed there for two and a half years.

When I started looking around, the Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants was looking for someone to run their continuing education program. We got together and I found that I liked association work. I was with them for about eight years and got to the point where I wanted to be the executive director or at least a career path where I’d become an executive director. While at OSCPA, I earned an MBA from Capital University. Fast-forward a little bit, I became aware of the Ohio State Bar Association assistant executive director position and got together with Joe Miller, who was Executive Director at the time, and the search committee and they offered me the job.

Q: How did you become executive director in 1986?

A:
When I was hired, they said if things went well I’d be looked at seriously for the job when Joe retired. Things must have gone well because when Joe was almost 65, the executive committee met in executive session, and about half an hour later the members came out and started shaking my hand saying they’d decided I was to be the next executive director. I didn’t even know that was on the table. I would have been nervous if I had known that.

Q: How have the legal profession and the OSBA changed since you started with the Association?

A:
The Association has gone through some pretty big changes in terms of the number of staff people, the things that we do, the types of affiliates we have and what they do. The profession has seen a were a lot of young lawyers. Today the same people who used to be the young lawyers are now the older lawyers and that’s where a large group of people are in the profession right now—it’s known as the graying of the profession.

It seemed to me, back in the ‘80s, there was a reluctance to look at the practice of law as a business. I think now, while it’s still a profession, people are paying a little more attention to the business side of it than they did 30 years ago.

Q: What in the 30-plus years that you’ve been with the OSBA do you point to and say, “That is what I’m most proud of”?

A:
We’ve done quite a bit, but the thing I’m most proud about is the staff, because the staff has made it all happen. Our ability to attract and retain terrific staff people is my proudest achievement.

Q: Do you have any regrets? Would you do anything differently?

A:
No real regrets. We’ve done a lot of things that have made a difference and we’ve been cutting-edge on a lot as well.

Q: What cutting-edge project are you particularly proud of?

A:
Two things in particular that I’m proud of. The first is OPEN, which stood for Online Professional Electronic Network. We started it in the ‘90s with $1 million and some partners who were providing the technological expertise. We provided credibility to the state agencies. OPEN was a system by which lawyers could get public information from state agencies through their computers. Before we created it, lawyers had to make a call if they needed a Bureau of Motor Vehicles form or something like that, and they might be on the line for 45 minutes before they got to talk to a human being. OPEN provided a way to use the computer to obtain the information/forms.

We found out that lawyers weren’t the only ones who wanted access to that service, and we expanded the kind of information that was available to include things like arrest records. We found that banks, insurance companies and rental car companies wanted that kind of information as well.

Our partners wanted to take OPEN nationwide. It would have taken extra money from us to do that. Instead we sold our share of OPEN to our partners. We had a million dollars invested in it and we got seven million dollars from the sale. That was a financial home run and the service is still there for lawyers and others.

The other thing that I’m proud of is Casemaker, which I think needs no introduction. It is online computer-assisted legal research that is worth way more than anyone has to pay in dues. Cincinnati lawyer Joe Shea created it, and he and I marketed it to 27 other state bars.

Q: One of the things that I’ve heard through the years that I’ve been here at the OSBA, is the membership dues are so affordable for all the benefits you receive. I get the impression that most people say that is because of your leadership.

A:
I can’t take all the credit. I’d like to point back to the staff that I mentioned before. The other thing that I’ve always said is a key ingredient for our success is a good hand-in-glove relationship between the board and the staff. The board and I have given the staff what I call “permission to fail.” By that I mean, don’t be afraid to go out and try an entrepreneurial project just because you think there’s a chance that it might not work. If you do all your research and it looks like, first and foremost, it will result in something that will help lawyers and members in their practices and you think there’s at least a reasonable chance it will be successful even though there might be a little bit of risk involved, don’t be afraid to try to make it happen. I’d rather see someone try and fail than say “I don’t want to stick my toe in the water because there might be an alligator in there.” I think that attitude is a big part of the reason we’ve been successful.

To develop that kind of culture you have to have little successes along the way. Each success builds on the other so when something big comes along like investing a million dollars for OPEN or investing in the time, money and effort to do Casemaker, the board is pretty comfortable letting the staff run with it. It’s a team effort built on mutual trust and respect.

Q: The Ohio State Bar Association, whether it’s the individual programming or the benefits for its membership, has really risen to the top among other state bar associations. Why do you think the OSBA has that national recognition?

A:
I love to take our leaders to national meetings of bar associations. I think when they hear us talk about being number one among bar associations they may think it’s a little self-serving. When they get to the meetings they find other people telling them the same thing. We do have a national reputation and it’s well deserved in my opinion, but again, it goes back to that culture I talked about with respect to the board, the staff and the entrepreneurial spirit that’s been built between the two.

The other thing is, several years ago we went through an exercise to discover our core purpose and our core values. We come up with a “BHAG”big hairy audacious goal. The fact that we know our core purpose and gear everything toward accomplishing it gives us an incredible leg up. There are many associations out there that really don’t know what their core purpose is. I think knowing ours, having a strategic plan, which we do, and having a yearly operational plan, leads us in the right path. We’re very businesslike about the whole thing. I talked about the practice of law being seen more as a business, there are a lot of people who don’t think the association ought to be run like a business. I totally disagree with that. We always have to look at what we’re doing, what resources are needed to accomplish the goals, and what’s the best way to bring things together for the members of the Ohio State Bar Association.

Q: Speaking of the members, what is the one thing you’d like them to know about their state association?

A:
That we’re always looking for ways to improve their professional lives. In fact, that is the purpose that we discovered. The Ohio State Bar Association exists to enhance the professional lives of its members and that’s what we are always trying to do. I would also like them to know that the money they pay in dues comes back to them in multiples based on the benefits that are available to them. For example, Casemaker, OSBA Report, Ohio Lawyer, our actions at the statehouse and with judicial organizations—there are just too many things to talk about right now in the short period of time we have. Somebody once told me that “you can’t sell from an empty wagon,” and our wagon is certainly not empty.

Q: In the past few decades, the public has developed a negative image of lawyers. What can the association do to fight that negative image of lawyers?

A:
One of our past presidents, Dick Markus, once told me that part of the negative image stems from the fact that some people don’t like the law as it effects them and they want to blame the lawyer for how it impacts their lives. I think we need to do good things and tell people about them. The OSBA must continue its good public relations programs, and continue to encourage lawyers to be active in civic affairs, in their school system and in their community.

Q: You received many awards. Is there one in particular that means the most to you?

A:
They’ve all been special, but I think the Ohio Bar Medal is the one in particular that’s the most meaningful to me. It’s the highest award of the Ohio State Bar Association and I’m the only nonlawyer to win it, so receiving it meant a great deal to me.

Q: Were you surprised when you received it?

A:
I was very surprised when I received it. When I was informed that I was getting it I was taken aback and pretty much speechless— which almost never happens.

Q: Is there anyone in particular who has inspired you during your career?

A:
I’ve always wanted my children (Beth and Brian) to be proud of me, and there have been so many people who have had an impact on my career here that it would be almost impossible for me to name any one in particular.

Q: What are your retirement plans?

A:
I already have Denny Ramey Association Consulting LLC set up. One of our past presidents, Tom Bonasera, set that up for me. If no one calls for my advice I’m not going to care (but I hope somebody calls). I’m going to play more golf— somebody said that’s impossible but I’m going to give it a shot. I’m also going to try to do community theatre. I think I’d make a terrific Henry Higgins.

I’m excited for my successor because whoever gets this job is going to get one of the best jobs in the world. I’m going to be available to him or her by phone—but I’m not going to come in here unless invited. I’m excited for the next stage of my life.

Q: With the knowledge you’ve gained in the 30-plus years on the job here, what advice would have for the next executive director of the OSBA?

A:
First and foremost, enjoy every day of it—you get to work with some terrific people. I’d say be flexible, roll with the punches and don’t be afraid to fight for what is right. In any given situation, there’s the high road and there are all the others. Always take the high road. It may not feel great at the time, but in the long run you’ll never regret taking the high road.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the Denny L. Ramey Education Fund that’s been established at the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

A:
The fund is for students in southeast Ohio with concentration in Portsmouth, which is my hometown. I’m very proud of that because it’s going to do good things for folks down there. I’ve seen firsthand the importance of education. I am proud the Foundation is doing something to help people in that particular geographic area learn more about the law and have learning opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Q: If you could have people say one thing about Denny L. Ramey and his time at the Ohio State Bar Association, what would it be?

A:
That he always kept his eye on the ball with respect to the members of the OSBA.

A video interview with Ramey is available here.

Stephanie Beougher is the communications and online media associate for the Ohio State Bar Association.

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