Closing the Deal with Your Employer: The Selling Points of Bar Participation
By Lindsey R. Buchheit
Lindsey R. Buchheit is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and an associate with the Sioux City, Iowa, firm of Corbett, Anderson, Corbett & Vellinga, L.L.P.
Members of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD) and its affiliate organizations understand the value of their bar association memberships. Their employers, on the other hand, may not. Accordingly, once a young lawyer takes the all-important step of getting involved in a bar association, it is equally important that he or she actively participates and stays involved. To do so, members rely greatly on the encouragement, assistance, and support of their employers. That being said, if employers do not understand the value of bar participation, new and young lawyers are less likely to remain active participants in the bar, thereby reducing the value of membership not only to the member and employer but also to the legal profession as a whole. Consequently, it is imperative that new and young members of the bar “sell” bar participation to their employers.
In his membership guidebook from 2002, “Getting Involved in the ABA Young Lawyers Division,” former ABA YLD Chair Brian Melendez of Faegre & Benson LLP in Minneapolis, Minnesota, listed several “selling points” that bar members could use when having “the talk” with their employers.
First, on its most basic level, active bar participation creates citizenship in the legal community. According to Melendez, “The force that most directly shapes the culture of the bar for a young lawyer is the firm in which he or she practices.” The firm shapes that culture by paying its associates’ dues, by funding associates to bar meetings and conferences, by recognizing and rewarding the firm’s lawyers who hold offices or chair committees, and by encouraging the firm’s partners and managers to be visibly active in the bar.
Second, involvement in a bar association helps to socialize and unite young lawyers, “not only to their membership in a professional community, but also to their professional responsibility to serve the public interest.” Bar associations can influence and guide the culture of the bar for the good of the profession and the community only if they stimulate, activate, and retain members of the profession. A more numerous, more invested membership legitimizes the bar’s public-service work and its ability to represent the public interest as well as the profession.
Third, bar participation develops business, a fact that any employer will appreciate. In addition to providing a forum through which member attorneys can meet and interact, the bar association allows and encourages its members to interact with the leaders of the local legal community whom they may ordinarily never meet in practice.
Fourth, given the decline in bar membership and in interaction among lawyers, it is imperative for the legitimacy of the legal profession that employers support and encourage active bar participation.
Fifth, involvement in the bar makes good economic sense. From a tax standpoint, it is far more economically efficient for the firm to pay its associates’ bar dues and other related expenses. The firm can pay bar-related expenses with pre-tax dollars and deduct them as business expenses, while the associate must include the amount of dues in income but cannot deduct that amount as a job expense (except to the extent that the associate’s unreimbursed expenses exceed 2 percent of adjusted gross income—a threshold that probably no associate reaches).
Finally, firms recoup the cost of an associate’s bar-association dues when the associate takes advantage of the opportunities the bar association offers for continuing-legal-education credit. Young lawyers can satisfy their CLE requirements through the bar association, which offers its members frequent and relevant seminars for free or for a few dollars per credit—a serious bargain compared to most commercially organized seminars.
Clearly, a new or young attorney wishing to speak with his or her employer regarding the benefits of a long-term relationship with the bar association is adequately equipped with sufficient evidence. In fact, given the foregoing selling points, it is quite likely that employers will jump at the chance to “buy” active bar participation.

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