Your diligent analysis of the legal issues won’t help you find guidance about areas of the law in which you eventually want to practice, nor will it help you select appropriate local counsel, specialized services, or technologies to aid your practice. A firm understanding of the law won’t help you market your employer or business more efficiently either. Rather, your success as a lawyer depends on your repeated long-term exposure to and involvement in the larger legal community. This has never been truer than in a difficult economy, where you must consistently distinguish yourself through your expertise, leadership, and commitment.
Many attorneys establish themselves as leaders and experts through their active involvement in bar associations, including the ABA. But how does one actually do that? It may not be enough to merely pay your dues and become a member. In fact, for new members, the complex structures of bar associations may be difficult to decode. Outlined below are key steps to navigating the organizational structure of the ABA so that you can make the most of your membership, something that will benefit you, your firm, the legal community, and eventually your clients.
Step 1: Join an ABA Section
The ABA is divided inter alia into substantive Sections and demographic Divisions. One such Division is the Young Lawyers Division (YLD), which is geared toward helping new attorneys navigate the various aspects of practice. New bar admittees who join the ABA are automatically enrolled in the YLD at no added cost for one year and can join a variety of the Division’s committees, which focus on different areas of law.
Contemporaneously, or at least before they no longer qualify as “young lawyers” according to the YLD (after the latter of the fifth year of practice or 36th year of age), prospective ABA leaders join one or more substantive Sections that interest them. For example, the authors of this article, are members of the Section of Intellectual Property Law (IPL Section), among others. Belonging to more than one Section or Division can maximize the opportunities and benefits of being an ABA member, as described below.
Step 2: Join one or more committees
ABA Sections and Divisions are organized into committees, which address specific issues or demographics. For instance, Committee 201 of the ABA-IPL Section covers federal trademark legislation. The lifeblood of the ABA, these committees address issues of legal substance by drafting resolutions as positions to be taken by the ABA Section/Division on a legal issue, preparing amicus briefs on pending cases, reporting on or presenting recent decisions, or drafting or commenting on potential legislation. Successful ABA leaders usually join substantive committees within their chosen Sections or Division.
Step 3: Obtain a project assignment from a committee chair or vice-chair
After joining a committee, distinguish yourself from others who may have joined only to passively receive information by getting involved. Reach out directly to the committee chairperson or vice-chairpersons and check in with them regularly. Typically, committees are also in need of volunteers for their many projects. You may be asked to help draft proposed resolutions and publications or organize a presentation or social event. Showing interest in a project or topic often leads to the formation of a subcommittee, in which you can further demonstrate your leadership skills and have a chance to collaborate with members who share your interests.
Step 4: Meet your colleagues at ABA meetings
Section and committee members can connect with their colleagues without ever leaving their desks, but nothing quite compares to meeting in person. Resourceful young attorneys can often find ways to subsidize their trips to live ABA meetings through the many positions, fellowships, scholarships, and sponsorships offered by the ABA or other organizations. Live ABA meetings provide opportunities to network with Section committee leaders and colleagues, get educated and obtain CLE credits, and socialize during meals, receptions, and local events.
Despite all the benefits of live meetings, not all young lawyers will be able to attend. These lawyers often supplement their ABA membership by becoming active in more local or targeted organizations at the city, county, state, national, and even international levels. Active membership in multiple organizations, provided one avoids becoming overcommitted, can have a synergistic effect on developing your leadership skills and reputation within the legal community.
Step 5: Become active locally
One way of achieving such synergies is by serving as a delegate to the ABA Young Lawyers Division on behalf of your state or local bar association. Delegates serve as the voice of their affiliate organizations at the Young Lawyers Division Assembly, where the delegates vote on a variety of resolutions and issues affecting young lawyers and the profession. The majority position is treated as the Young Lawyers Division’s official stance at the ABA House of Delegates and influences the position and lobbying efforts of the organization as a whole. Recent Assemblies have addressed such important social issues as legalization of gay marriage, the constitutionality and propriety of certain immigration law-enforcement policies, and misleading advice to law students about the cost of education and the compensation one should expect to earn after school. Sometimes serving as a state or local delegate subsidizes the costs of attending live ABA meetings across the country.
In addition or as an alternative to serving as a delegate, some ABA members have initiated more local opportunities so they can meet with their colleagues in person more than a few times a year. For example, the Young Lawyers Action Group of the ABA-IPL has created a group for its New York area intellectual property practitioners and is setting up similar groups in other areas. While the New York group has an electronic component, the leaders have organized regular breakfasts, where they informally share information about their projects and how they can help each other achieve their project goals.
Becoming an active participant in the ABA provides a sense of satisfaction that you are at the forefront of your practice area and in control of your legal career path. It also is sure to lead to professional contacts and friendships. In fact, this article was co-written by colleagues who met at an ABA Conference in April 2010.