Elevate Your Career by Getting Involved
August 2012 | Survival Guide for Young Lawyers: Taking Charge of Your Career
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FEATURE

Elevate Your Career by Getting Involved

By Mavis Gragg


Many new attorneys jump into their first positions eager to prove their worth by billing thousands of hours (or simply working really hard). However, putting in the time does not necessarily help you advance in your career nor does it make your career more satisfying.  Instead, new attorneys should seek opportunities outside their jobs that will allow them to grow into well-rounded professionals and have a fulfilling life.  Getting involved in your community is a great place to start.

Community service does not have to be a completely altruistic act. In fact, community service is an excellent way to give back and get the skills, knowledge and relationships that lead to being a well-rounded and satisfied professional. 

Here are some reasons why getting involved in your community helps you:

  • Develop skills and knowledge you may not be able to develop in your current job. Depending on your job level, job type or employment organization, it may take some time before you have the opportunity to learn or enhance certain skills and knowledge.  With volunteering you often have the ability to take a role that gives you more responsibility and requires you to develop skills and knowledge that are not required in your current job. 
  • Gain leadership experience. Again, depending on your job level in your organization, it may be a while before you rise through the leadership ranks. That does not mean you have to wait to start developing and demonstrating your leadership skills. Most organizations seeking volunteers are thirsty for energetic folks to take the reins. Many organizations also recognize the fact that new energy can have a transformative impact on the organization and reenergize it. Plus, by taking on a leadership role you have the opportunity to highlight your initiative -- a highly valued quality in a good lawyer.  It’s a win-win for you and the organization.
  • Highlight your enterprising abilities.  Just like many organizations value new energy, many organizations also really appreciate volunteers who meet underserved or unmet needs.  A good example of an often unmet need for a non-profit is social networking. Notwithstanding the popularity and necessity of social networking for organizations, many either do not have the resources (including the how-to) or manpower to do it successfully. If you are savvy at social networking, you can volunteer as a social media manager. It would be much appreciated and will likely have a high impact for the organization. 
  • Explore an area of interest outside of your practice area or job focus.  New and different subject matter knowledge and skills can make you more versatile.  Also, as a new attorney your current job may not be in your area of interest. That does not mean you cannot start exploring your area(s) of interest now, especially if you will get the opportunity to build relationships with professionals in that practice area.
  • Network and build relationships.  Volunteering is a great way to cultivate your professional network and it allows you to build relationships with the people in your network. A strong network is a critical source of information, new clients, opportunities to collaborate, and future professional prospects. This includes relationship building at your place of employment.  If your firm has a pro bono program, your involvement can give you exposure to and allow you to develop relationships with other attorneys, including senior attorneys, in your firm. This gives them a chance to get to know you and see what a great attorney you are.
  • Enhance your visibility. Being active in your community enhances your visibility, which is always good for business (assuming you are doing great work).  Just as with the networking benefits of volunteering, greater visibility often leads to new clients, opportunities to collaborate and professional prospects. 
  • Get experience with organizational management. Serving on a board can be incredible experience for a future practice leader or solo practitioner. This will give you hands-on experience with how an organization operates including funding, strategic planning, marketing and human resources.  Plus, you often get to work alongside community leaders and this equals visibility.  Caveat: do your research before serving on a board. You will have the best experience serving a well-run organization i.e. work with a drama-free organization to maximize your opportunity to learn and serve rather than having to focus on saving the organization.

Now that you are ready to get involved, what’s next? The American Bar Association (ABA) is a great place to start. With its many sections, committees, the ABA is teeming with opportunities to get involved. Some sections even offer fellowships and scholarships to support your active involvement in the ABA. So, be on the lookout for those.  Typically the fellowships and scholarships require you to attend the section’s Fall and Spring meetings.  Usually, there is partial reimbursement for participation costs.

National, state and local bar organizations generally are great organizations in which to get all of the personal benefits described in this article.  There are additional perks such as getting published and gaining public speaking experience, which set the path to you becoming valued as an expert in your area of practice. Plus, involvement in bar organizations provides an opportunity to network on the local, statewide and national level. 

Pro bono work is a great way to get experience. If your current employer does not have a pro bono program, look to your bar association.  You can volunteer as a mediator at a community mediation center or get on the ombudsperson roster of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, which provides dispute resolution for service members and their employers. Both of these types of programs give you free training and experience in different dispute resolution processes.   

Get exposure to the academic world by volunteering at a law school.  You can serve as a judge in a competition or as a panelist.  Also consider thinking beyond volunteer opportunities that are strictly for lawyers. Art or history lovers can consider volunteering as a docent (tour leader) at a local museum where you can enhance your public speaking skills. You can also volunteer in various capacities with a local animal organization. The ways in which you can lend a hand are as varied as the types of animal lovers out there. You may meet your next client! Of course, the choices of non-profit organizations are practically limitless.  Just make sure to be thoughtful in choosing the organizations you volunteer with to ensure that you are getting as much value as you are giving the organization. 

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About the Author

Mavis Gragg is a Regulatory Attorney at Buckley Sandler LLP, in Washington, D.C., where she assists clients in the financial-services industry, in litigation, regulatory, and compliance matters.  She is an active member of the ABA’s Law Practice Management Section and serves on the Women Rainmakers Board and Membership Development Committee.  She can be reached at mgragg@buckleysandler.com or at http://linkd.in/KFuzlh.

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