Making the connection: In a high-tech age, young lawyers value the personal touch

Volume 35 Number 1

By

It didn’t take long for Jaime Hawk to see the benefits from an unprecedented get-together of leaders from the ABA Young Lawyers Division and the National Conference of Bar Presidents in February.

“None of the tables were silent. People were very engaged,” says Hawk, who helped coordinate the program for the ABA YLD at the 2010 Midyear Meeting in Orlando, Fla. “It was great to see the senior lawyers talking with the younger lawyers.”

Jim Nolan, who was president of NCBP at the time of the meeting, also got positive vibes from a first that he expects won’t be a last.

“Hopefully, this is the first of many joint programs [for NCBP] to listen to [young lawyers] and talk with them,” he says. “I think everyone was bummed out when it was all over.”

That interaction and discussion—which produced several observations and ideas—is just one part of a multipronged approach that bar associations across the country are taking to encourage young lawyers not only to join the bar, but also to participate in bar programs and to explore paths to association leadership. It was an important step that Hawk, Nolan, and others would like to see duplicated.

While discounted membership, social gatherings, and special events remain staples for many bars seeking to kindle the interest of young lawyers, bar associations are coming up with different ideas and new twists on existing or previous programs in their attempts to improve outreach efforts.

Bar activities geared toward networking, career planning, mentoring, and volunteer work are taking greater precedence for young lawyers, bar observers say and surveys show. Improving those offerings, while also bolstering YLD activities within bars and broadening interactions with senior bar leaders, might also encourage younger bar members to pursue bar leadership, they add.

Traditional hurdles to young lawyer involvement in bar activity—time constraints, relevancy, and cost—are likely to remain problematic, leaders say, along with the continued sluggish economy that has led to lawyer layoffs, fewer job openings, and more lawyers pursuing solo practice. But many bar leaders say they’re confident that bars can use a mix of new ideas—and old—to succeed in attracting young lawyers and preparing them to lead future generations of their associations.

 

Listen first, then talk

The idea for the NCBP/YLD summit grew out of discussions that NCBP board members were having last year about things they could do to encourage young lawyers to get involved in bar membership and leadership, Nolan recalls. It’s been a vexing problem for many bars facing often-stagnant membership—particularly among newer attorneys.

“We’re talking about this, and we look around and we don’t have any young lawyers with us,” Nolan says. “If we want to make decisions about what bar associations should be doing to attract and retain young lawyers, we should be talking to them.”

That idea was welcome news for the ABA YLD. “We have a very seniority-driven profession,” says Hawk, a past president of the Washington State Bar Association’s YLD. “More current bar leaders are committed to their agendas and issues, so sometimes there’s a disconnect with young lawyers. They’re often forgetting that succession planning piece [in bar leadership].”

Nolan says NCBP made it clear to the YLD that the more senior group was there to listen first, and then talk. “We need outreach,” he says. “I think that sometimes, bar associations take it for granted that young people are going to join.”

What bar associations might find are some of the things that the American Society of Association Executives discovered in a 2007 survey of 17,000 professionals. That survey, “The Decision to Join,” found that association members place less emphasis on costs and more emphasis on other factors when deciding to join.

Among young association members, the survey found that networking and career planning were rated as important—a view not shared by more established association members. Volunteer opportunities were also rated more highly by younger members.

“The young are dissatisfied with associations’ effectiveness in meeting their most important needs,” the survey report stated. “Associations will need to strengthen the services they offer this segment if they intend to offset alternative means of networking and accessing information sources.”

Catherine Lux, Career Services Program director for ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership, agrees. “Associations should be giving more career planning to our members, but I’m not sure we’re doing the best job of providing it,” she says. “Networking is hugely important, and it’s not just for their next jobs. Associations should be fostering this for their members.”

Kalpana Yalamanchili, director of committee and section services and special events at the Ohio State Bar Association, says bars must be more nimble in adapting to young lawyers’ needs.

“[Young lawyers] are well educated and do what they want to do, not what they have to do,” she believes. “The bottom line is that we have to do things differently. We have to change our model of doing things. It has to be a multifaceted approach.”

 

Getting to know you

For many bar associations, developing new ideas and that wide-ranging approach means taking another look at their young lawyer sections or divisions and other programs, with an eye toward new or improved offerings.

“Our Young Lawyers Section has been reinvigorated in the last couple of years,” says Colleen Evans, the OSBA’s director of membership services. “The section’s goal is to serve as an entrée into the OSBA.”

Like many bars, the OSBA offers free membership for new admittees and sponsors receptions, where new lawyers receive portfolios with information about membership, immediately after swearing-in ceremonies. The bar also runs special promotions to draw new members to meetings, such as a recent program that encouraged more seasoned members to bring a young lawyer to the lunch portion of the bar’s district meetings. The young lawyers got free lunches, while the older lawyers received $25 CLE coupons. The bar’s Young Lawyer Day, held in conjunction with the annual convention, began two years ago with a mix of special programming and events geared toward younger members.

The OSBA, like other bars, is also taking advantage of technology to reach new members. Evans conducts twice-yearly surveys of young members, allowing her to tweak programs or develop new ones, based on the responses.

The Illinois State Bar Association has been gathering new member e-mail addresses for targeted marketing, and the bar and its YLD maintain Facebook pages, says Alexa Giacomini, the ISBA’s director of marketing and membership. The bar’s year-old blog has logged more than 1,000 entries, and features photo galleries, such as the most recent bar admission ceremonies.

The ISBA and the OSBA are also part of what the ASAE says is a growing re-emergence of associations that use mailings to reach younger members with information and programs targeted to them. With so much marketing now being done through e-mail, many groups are now finding that a piece sent by “snail mail” actually captures more attention than previously thought.

The ISBA has plans for at least six mailings to go out to young lawyers over three years, offering details on membership benefits and YLD events that highlight networking opportunities. The mailings will also include information on how young members can improve their practice skills and better handle the work-life balance.

“We’re just really trying to get in front of them with information,” Giacomini says. “With this generation, you really have to sell the bar at a personal level.”

The OSBA takes that approach, too, Evans says, by personally telephoning new members to welcome them to the bar.

The Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Law and Library Association blends the personal touch with networking each year with an admission day ceremony in December for new lawyers at the Luzerne County courthouse. The bar’s YLD hosts a reception and gives new admittees a packet of information about the bar and YLD activities, along with free professional photos of their admission, says Joseph Burke, the bar’s executive director. That’s followed by a holiday party and dinner with the county’s judges and magistrates and senior bar members. “It’s a great way for new members to break the ice with the judiciary and the bar,” Burke says.

The bar has also successfully built on the judiciary networking theme, Burke says, with an annual “Dinner with the Judge” program that brings young lawyers together with state court judges.

Networking with a twist geared toward younger lawyers was the goal of the Rhode Island Bar Association’s New Attorney Advancement Task Force, which was formed in 2008. The task force’s “speed networking” event last February introduced dozens of new members to the bar’s 14 committees—10 minutes at a time.

The chairs of all the committees were stationed at tables where they gave brief “real-life” overviews of their panels in an effort to attract new members, says Linda Rekas Sloan, the bar’s Executive Committee liaison to the task force. The young members each selected three tables, plus one mandatory appearance at the Legal Services Committee table to learn more about legal referral services and pro bono opportunities.

“After 10 minutes, they blew the whistle and people moved on,” Sloan says. “It was a fun way to make new people feel welcome to the bar.”

 

A new look at old standbys

Many bar associations continue to rely on tried and true programming—invigorated, though, with new ideas.

Playing softball against senior lawyers is still a favorite pastime at the 345-member Washington County (Pa.) Bar Association, and so is miniature golf, says the bar’s executive director, Kathy Sabol. But while the softball is mainly for fun and camaraderie, miniature golf has another purpose: as a fundraiser.

The bar’s YLD and the Washington County Bar Foundation join forces each year to sponsor a wine-tasting and golfing event that raises scholarship money for young lawyers to attend CLE. The YLD usually screens applicants and makes a recommendation to the foundation, Sabol says. CLE costs typically run $200 to $300, she notes, and “for a law clerk not making a lot of money, it makes a big difference.”

Although lunches, golf, and midweek social hours are popular for younger lawyers at the Wilkes-Barre bar, the YLD is also involved in several community volunteer projects, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen and an animal shelter. But a recently introduced pro bono program, Wills for Heroes, has proven to be one of the most popular volunteer programs for young lawyers, according to Kelly Bray, the YLD’s treasurer. Through this program, lawyers provide free will preparation and other legal documentation for emergency first responders.

Earlier this year, the YLD helped first responders with 170 wills—the highest total of any Pennsylvania bar and the second highest in the country, Bray says. “We came into this profession because we genuinely want to help people,” she explains.

Mentoring, which takes many forms at many bars, is also seeing some new approaches. After a previous mentoring program failed amid concerns that senior lawyers were using young lawyers to do work for them, Pennsylvania Bar Association President Gretchen Mundorff and other bar leaders decided to take a different approach with a new program this year. They went directly to the heart of the association’s leadership—the House of Delegates—to find mentors willing to work with new admittees.

The goal, Mundorff says, is not only to provide mentoring along practice area and geography lines, but also to show younger bar members the value and importance of the bar itself in the hopes of sparking their interest in the bar.

“[The senior lawyers] are the bar junkies, as we call them. They’re the committee chairs, the delegates, the commission members,” she says. “We want to mentor [new admittees] about the organization. Once we get them into the fold and give them some things to do, I think they’re going to stay with us.”

Mundorff says the bar is also working with its YLD to bolster its Bar Leadership Institute, which will work closely with the bar’s Board of Governors to give the young lawyers a glimpse of bar leadership. “They’ll meet and maybe form their own networks,” she says.

 

Cultivating new leaders

Leadership, along with membership, remains on the minds of many bar leaders as they look for successors. For many bars, leadership academies can help cultivate those members—and new ideas are arising there, as well.

At the OSBA, a class of 24 young lawyers recently completed a new six-month leadership academy program that included an overnight summit and a wide range of discussion led by senior lawyers, judges, and political leaders, Yalamanchili says. Many of those discussions, she adds, centered on leadership and professionalism.

“I got the sense that their interest had been piqued in bar service. If these young people are the future of our profession, we’re in really good hands,” she notes. “This is about equipping our young lawyers for leadership in their communities.”

Now in its fifth year, the Nebraska State Bar Association Leadership Academy is paying dividends, with many of the graduates taking on leadership roles in bar committees, the House of Delegates, and other activities, says Sam Clinch, associate executive director of the bar. “When our president-elect is looking for committee or section chairs or people to run for our Executive Council or the House of Delegates, we always look first at past academy members,” he says.

A growing part of the academy experience for young lawyers, Clinch says, is community service, with each class developing and taking on a project. This year’s class helped create the NSBA’s first Community Service Day on June 4, a statewide project that encouraged lawyers to take time out from work that day to volunteer in their communities.

One recent graduate, Rob Caples, says the academy has made a big difference in how he views the bar association and the profession.

“I didn’t give too much thought before to what the bar association did. Now, I’d like to serve on a committee,” he says. “It was also a good way to meet with lawyers you don’t really see. I feel like I have a much wider net of contacts now.”

At some bars, the young lawyers division or section itself provides hands-on leadership training and helps more senior members identify promising new leaders.

“We’ve let it be known that the Young Lawyers Section is a proving ground for bar leadership,” says Lisa Mead, executive director of the 745- member Collier County (Fla.) Bar Association. “We have a very active young lawyers group, and they take it very seriously.”

Of the 12 current members of the bar’s Board of Directors, nine were previous members of the YLS, she notes.

The Wilkes-Barre bar not only works to get young lawyers involved in leadership there, but it also helps direct young lawyers to regional and state bar leadership. The bar provides funding to send two young lawyers with the bar’s members of the state Conference of County Bar Leaders, “where we make sure they get introduced to the state bar leaders,” Burke says.

The bar also provides funding for membership in the Young Lawyers Division of the state bar, and attendance at that group’s events. Bray, who serves as a regional chair for the state YLD, is a beneficiary, as is Jarrod Tranguch, who is both president of the Wilkes-Barre YLD and secretary of the state YLD.

“We truly do have the support of our bar,” Bray says. “If we didn’t have their support, we really couldn’t do this.”

While Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail are staples of how most young lawyers communicate today, just like with membership and event attendance, the personal touch still counts in getting them involved in leadership, says the Rhode Island bar’s Sloan.

“You actually have to have someone call [young lawyers] and ask them to join committees,” she says. “They find that they’re honored to be personally contacted by senior bar members. I asked [young lawyers] to sign up for the House of Delegates, and now I have a handful of new lawyers joining the House of Delegates.”

 

Making it meaningful

Jim Nolan, Jaime Hawk and other bar leaders—young and older—agree that leadership support, leadership-led dialogue, and a constant, dedicated commitment are vital to drawing young lawyers to the bar, involving them in activities, and getting them into leadership positions. The effort, they say, often begins in law schools, continues into active young lawyer sections, and is then nurtured by bar leaders.

“When you graduate from law school, you don’t realize you’re joining a profession. You just don’t know what the bar association is all about,” Hawk says. “It’s all about relationships. They’re looking for opportunities to network and to meet other lawyers and to look for jobs in a down economy. They want to build those relationships.”

Fostering young lawyer involvement and leadership at bar associations cannot stop when younger members finish their academy work or age out of their YLDs, Nolan adds.

“The associations must make sure they have meaningful positions for these young lawyers. Get them in on meaningful committees where they will have a voice and get involved,” he advises. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a necessity.”

One of the most encouraging results from the NCBP/YLD summit, he and others say, was talk among participants afterward about follow-up sessions at the national level, and more discussion at the state and local level.

“It was so well received, most of the bar leaders said, ‘We’re going to go home and do the same thing,’ ” Nolan recalls. “We have to listen, listen, listen to the young lawyers and then discuss how we can help, instead of having a bunch of veteran lawyers telling young lawyers war stories.”

For bar leaders and young lawyers looking anxiously to their futures, these are discussions worth talking about.

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