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Vol. 30, No. 1

What do young (or new) lawyers want from their bars?

by Robert J. Derocher

When Cynthia Pellegrino came to the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA) nearly 15 years ago, it was common to find members of that bar’s Young Lawyers Division (YLD) involved in a host of separate social and charitable functions throughout the year.

Not so today, she says.

“[Young lawyers] today just don’t have the time to make themselves available for all these things,” says Pellegrino, director of membership and interbar relations. “We’re bundling our activities, rolling the social, networking, and fundraising activities into one event.”

The NJSBA, like many local and state bars across the country, has had to look carefully at its activities and make adjustments to provide the right mix of services to the newest of bar members. From CLE cruise trips to wine tastings, from networking programs to high-profile bar association committee assignments, state and local bars use a variety of methods in an almost constant struggle to recruit and retain younger members.

Competing interests—new families, the billable hour burden, and other social and professional activities—often make it difficult for young lawyers to join and get involved in bar activities. It is the quintessential example of the elusive work/life balancing act.

Shifting demographics—from more solo/small-firm practitioners to “young” attorneys in their 40s and 50s—have also added to the challenges for bars over the last 10 to 15 years. A mix of interests, from public service and pro bono to more practical member service-oriented activities, provide additional tests for bar associations.

For their part, many bars continue their often-innovative attempts to reach out to this hard-to-reach segment of the bar population, whether it is through YLDs or through the main bar. Many are also intensifying efforts to include law students in bar activities and beefing up technology for computer-savvy new members. These efforts are all key, they say, in the crucial drive to build lasting relationships between lawyer and association at a time when association membership is no longer a given for today’s professional.

Fighting for free time

The challenges of attracting younger members to associations and keeping them on board have been well documented—and not just for bar associations. “Compared with a decade ago, nearly all associations are dealing with a membership which travels less, is online more, and sees a tougher competitive marketplace for the products and services it provides,” writes Peter G. Miller, a Washington, D.C., marketing consultant on his Web site, “In many cases, the results of such trends have included declining membership, less attendance at association events, and smaller budgets.”

The challenges of the Houston Young Lawyers Association (HYLA) are not unlike those facing other associations, according to Laura Beckman, HYLA’s immediate past president. After peaking in the mid-1980s with about 2,200 members, the HYLA saw its membership fall to about 1,800 a few years ago before struggling to reach today’s level of about 2,000 members.

Not only is membership stagnant, “but it’s been harder and harder to get young lawyers involved in bar activities,” says Beckman, who heard many of the same stories at the national level when she was meetings coordinator for the ABA YLD. “It’s a real challenge in how we’re going to reduce that trend.”

Not surprisingly, time—more accurately, the lack of available free time—is cited by most bar associations and new attorneys as the factor most affecting low membership and participation in bar activities.

While a 2004 American Bar Foundation/National Association for Law Placement study suggests that media reports of “exhausted” young attorneys was somewhat off the mark (the median number of hours worked by a new lawyer each week was 50), the survey still found that there were plenty of busy attorneys. Nearly a third of the new attorneys surveyed in a large firm (251 or more lawyers) and nearly a quarter of solo practitioners put in 60 or more hours each week.

“There are so many competitors for a young lawyer’s time and energy, be they personal or professional,” says Mary-Alice Barrett, immediate past chair of the YLD of the NJSBA.

The time crunch has prompted many associations to respond, such as the NJSBA’s attempt to combine various activities. The Northern Kentucky Bar Association takes a similar approach, says Brandie Ingalls, the bar’s executive director. The bar recently combined Law Day activities with a service project, “Lawsuits for the Poor,” which involved distributing professional attire to needy people on that day. “I guess you could say it is a ‘kill-two-birds-with-one-stone’ approach,” she says.

The Lancaster (Pa.) Bar Association took new attorneys’ time into consideration when it recently began moving toward the formation of more task forces, rather than committees, according to Evelyn Sullivan, the bar’s executive director. With their short-term commitments, specific beginning and end dates, and measurable accountability, task forces are often more attractive to new attorneys than long-term committee assignments.

A defined, short-term time commitment helps attract new attorneys to service projects at the Texas Young Lawyers Association (TYLA), according to Carol McCord, the TYLA’s director of administration. “It provides an opportunity to work on a project the attorney feels is valuable either to the community or to the members of the bar,” she says.

Still, bars often struggle to get young lawyers to come out for service-oriented projects. “I’ve been here 14 years,” Pellegrino says, “and over that period of time, (young lawyers) have moved away from community service projects. They just don’t have the time to make themselves available.”

Career payback and camaraderie

“What are young/new bar members looking for?” remains one of the most-often-asked questions at bar associations. The answer for many appears to be a mix of social and career-oriented events, although some associations are seeing shifts in what those should be.

“Our membership base has changed. Our board of directors used to be mainly large-firm lawyers with some small-firm lawyers and solos. Now, I see the opposite,” Beckman says. “And the solos and young lawyers in small firms really need the networking.”

In her recently concluded year as HYLA president, Beckman sought to meet a growing demand for what she calls “member services,” an area that focuses on career investment for young attorneys, such as CLE programs. Other benefits, such as reduced country club fees and discounts for services at a local bank were also popular with younger members. The association also started a Leadership Academy last year aimed at attorneys with less than three years’ experience, giving them monthly exposure to leading lawyers and judges in the area.

At the Boston Bar Association, one of the most well-received new initiatives for young lawyers is the Public Interest Leadership Program, according to Bonnie Sashin, the bar’s communications director. Launched in 2003, the program selects up to 10 “up and coming” lawyers to participate in a yearlong series of discussions and activities with prominent business and community leaders. The young lawyers are also part of a special bar committee designed to foster a strong culture of pro bono and public interest law among their peers.

“Smart lawyers know that relationships are key not just to feeling professionally fulfilled, but to business development,” Sashin says. “Because of the cachet carried by the Public Interest Leader branding concept, the young lawyers have the ability to attract the heaviest of heavy hitters to whatever events they plan.”

Associations that provide a broad range of career-oriented activities for younger members will likely do well in attracting and keeping those members, according to Anne Blouin, chief learning and communications officer for the American Society of Association Executives. The association’s annual three-day learning retreat for future association leaders has grown in popularity, as have related programs.

“I think (young association leaders) are looking to develop their skills and build camaraderie,” she says. “The emerging leaders’ community is pressed for time, but they’re hungry to learn from each other.”

A demographic phenomenon might also be influencing what new lawyers are looking for—starting with the phrase “young lawyer.”

“Stop calling us young lawyers,” says Felicia Vallera, 48, an attorney and CPA who got her J.D. just six years ago. She is president of the San Francisco Bar Association’s Barristers Club, the association’s YLD. “We now have a strong preference for referring to this group as ‘entry-level lawyers,’ ‘new admittees,’ or even ‘junior bar members.’ Young lawyer labels or other age-based distinctions definitely alienate a lot of prospective new member recruits.”

Noting that the average age of students entering her law school class was 27 (making them 30 upon graduation, just six years younger than many YLD cutoffs) and the average age of Barrister Club members is 33 to 35, Vallera says her association is a more mature audience seeking “tangible career payback that justifies giving up personal time.”

“If you drop in on any Barristers Club section or committee meeting at random, you are far more likely to hear members sharing angst about mortgage payments, child care, and work/life balance issues,” she says, “rather than when the next happy hour will be scheduled. One of our most successful Barristers Club professional development programs last year was called, ‘Buying a House 101.’”

But Blouin adds that it is still important for associations to strike a balance between meaty learning and networking programs and lighter fare that have become staples at bar associations, such as pub nights, softball/sports events, and informal gatherings.

Among the NJSBA’s most popular YLD events are a kickoff barbecue, tailgate party, steeplechase races, hospitality suites, wine-tasting dinners, and a holiday reception known as the Brew-Ho-Ho. “They’re a good means to network in a social setting—a more relaxed setting,” Barrett says.

For the HYLA, a popular addition last year was a Caribbean cruise that allowed young members to gain an entire year’s worth of CLE in a relaxed setting, Beckman says. At the Lancaster bar, the most popular event for young lawyers is a bus trip to Philadelphia for admission to federal court. The trip features a visit with a federal judge—along with “beer and munchies” on the way home, according to Evelyn Sullivan.

“Social definitely works better when there’s something else attached . . . to rationalize time out of the office,” she adds.

The Northern Kentucky Bar Association recently restructured its Young Lawyers Section to reduce meetings to twice a month. The monthly planning meeting consists of implementation and planning of programs and administrative activities, according to Ingalls, followed by a separate happy hour reserved for relaxation and networking.

“In doing so, we hope to meet the needs of those who are interested in getting involved on long-term projects and planning,” she says, “with those who may not have the time to commit but are interested in being involved on a social basis.”

Norton Gappy figures he has probably been to only one or two “pub nights” sponsored by bar associations. He explains that this type of function means “another night away” from work. But that doesn’t mean Gappy, the immediate past chair of the YLD at the Michigan Defense Trial Counsel (MDTC), doesn’t believe in socialization and networking.

“Anybody who goes to one of our events knows we spend our days learning and our evenings socializing,” he says of MDTC events such as a one-day Young Lawyers Conference held annually. “Do some organizations go overboard with pub nights? Probably. We want to offer something the person can take away with them.”

And Gappy believes the efforts are working. Attendance at MDTC young lawyer events has been growing steadily over the last two or three years, up an estimated 25 to 35 percent over that time, he says.

Work/life balance

As the chair of The Florida Bar’s Quality of Life Committee, Cindy Zatzman has talked to plenty of young attorneys about the delicate balance between their work and outside lives; and the message is clear: “Young lawyers are saying, ‘I want quality of life here. I’m not going to work 100 hours a week and not have a personal life,’” she says.

The message is also clear that bar associations of all stripes must make efforts to address the issue in order to remain relevant for younger attorneys. “Bar associations have to acknowledge this is real and provide attorneys opportunities to network,” she adds.

For many new attorneys, improving quality of life starts at home. In a 44-page report issued earlier this year, the North Carolina Bar Association YLD’s Lawyer Effectiveness and Quality of Life Committee found that nearly half those surveyed said that family activities and family “quality time” were vital to a good work/life balance.

Offering programs that allow young members to involve their families is key, according to LaDonna Wallace Smith, Young Lawyers Section liaison for the Cincinnati Bar Association. “Planning events that involve children and spouses is important for keeping those who feel this is important,” she says. “When your members feel you are listening to them and trying to provide for their needs, they’ll have a sense of loyalty, because you’ve shown them that you are loyal and hold their needs in high regard.”

That was the message the Northern Kentucky Bar got as well, prompting the bar to offer more family-oriented events, such as baseball game outings and trips to the horse racing track, according to Ingalls. “We try to structure events at more appropriate times for members with families,” adds Barrett. “We try to support the well-roundedness of the members.”

The work/life balance for young lawyers is a top priority for Christina Plum, the new chair of the ABA YLD. She believes that bar associations at all levels will see the value of promoting work/life balance as a way to grow membership and improve the associations’ work.

“Young lawyers are concerned about quality of life, and bars need to address those concerns,” she says. “I am optimistic that bar leaders can lead the way in finding solutions. We have to. We have to make it viable for people to continue to practice law.”

Get new lawyers involved immediately

But can the various young/new lawyer sections, divisions, and bars provide the spark for greater membership and participation in bar association activities? Denny Ramey, executive director of the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA), isn’t so sure. A 25-year veteran at the bar, Ramey has seen the OSBA and other bars nationwide struggle to gain the interest of new bar members.

“To network among themselves is not the best thing that they can do,” he says. “I think it’s a mistake to have a young lawyer section. Put them on substantive committees (in the main bar) doing meaningful stuff. I think things are going to change because, clearly, it’s not working right now. I think it’s fine to do something different.”

Many bar members, young and old, still see value in young lawyer sections and divisions—particularly if they help provide a stepping stone for the members to continue their bar association involvement once they leave the newer member division.

“I have found that many who are in leadership positions typically want to continue,” Smith says. “Whenever other committees are looking to young lawyers to diversify their committees and boards, they ask the YLS.”

Barrett says her YLD experiences will help her as she moves on to leadership roles in the NJSBA and the ABA. She is a member of the state bar’s Board of Trustees, as well as a district representative to the ABA YLD.

“I’ve been given wonderful opportunities to work on senior bar activities,” she says. “If you don’t get attorneys involved when they’re young, then they won’t be involved later on.”

While Gappy believes it is important to have young lawyer sections and committees, there also must be coordination and interaction with the entire bar as well. “You can’t let the groups stay in separate corners of the room,” he says. “Both sides have to nurture it. Their actions need to tie with each other.”

Blouin agrees. “Young members should be welcomed into the organization and have opportunities in the organization. They’re interested in getting a seat at the table,” she says. “You always have to look at ways to bring more talent into the organization.”

In Cincinnati, bar Executive Director John Norwine does that by regularly attending YLS functions and encouraging other bar leaders to do the same, according to Smith. Ingalls does that as well in northern Kentucky, and at the Lancaster bar, the YLS chair has a seat on the board of directors.

Proactive programs for students

Many bar associations are also taking a more proactive approach in reaching younger members by broadening their activities at law schools. A program launched this year by the HYLA, a “spring fling” job fair at Houston’s three law schools, should help more law students become involved with the bar after graduation, according to Beckman. “The deans for the schools can’t wait for us to come back again.”

In New Jersey, after limited success in the past, the YLD is looking to expand its program offerings for law students, according to Barrett. Like many other bars, the NJSBA and HYLA offer discounted dues to students.

The State Bar of Texas has its own Law Student Division ($15 annual dues), which entitles them to many regular bar benefits, including an e-newsletter to improve communication, according to Holly Wilkerson, the bar’s student division coordinator.

“The feedback we are receiving from students is that they want networking opportunities with attorneys,” she says. To that end, the student division’s board meetings now coincide with the TYLA board meetings, while the State Bar of Texas has conducted seminars and plans for others on campus.

A multifaceted approach

While trends and surveys indicate that the road ahead for attracting and retaining new bar members will likely remain difficult, bar leaders hope the multifaceted approach taken by many associations will yield dividends. In many ways, they say, to drive to reach out to younger members is not much different than efforts to reach all members, both current and potential.

“People’s time is precious. They’ve got other things to do,” Beckman says. “We’ve got to give them a reason to come out.”

Keep them plugged in

One of the best ways to keep younger bar members plugged into the organization is to keep them plugged in—literally—with technology, particularly the Internet.

“Each era responds to the technology of its time,” says Peter G. Miller, a marketing and communications consultant who has advised several associations on Web site development. “Younger association members born and raised in the Internet era are comfortable with today’s technology, and so it follows that associations will increasingly include ListServs, e-mail, and electronic newsletters in their efforts to reach and impact members.”

Association Web sites have become a powerful marketing tool for new and potential members, as well as a way to keep busy members connected without having to attend bar meetings or functions several times a month.

“The obvious difference about how the younger generation of lawyers will participate in the bar association and in general is that the Web is very important and powerful in their lives,” says Cynthia Pellegrino, director of membership and interbar relations for the New Jersey State Bar Association. As a result, the bar’s technology committee has been busy improving and expanding the site’s capabilities, she says.

That is what the Houston Young Lawyers Association has done with its Web site as well, according to Laura Beckman, the bar’s immediate past president. The site is now updated on a regular basis, and several association committee chairs have been given free reign to create and update Web pages.

“Some of them have been very good about getting information out to their members,” she says. “They’ve gotten good feedback and they’ve been able to get more volunteers.”

At the Cincinnati Bar Association Young Lawyers Section Liaison LaDonna Wallace Smith is developing a new “E-Newsletter” for YLS members. The newsletter will feature an events calendar, a committee spotlight, a career page written by a lawyer at a recruiting firm, and articles that detail how the YLS is working with the larger bar. “Communications is key,” she says.

Mentoring in the fast lane

Obscured in the haze of 70-hour workweeks, mountainous law school debts, the quest for the billable hour, and the buzzing BlackBerry, the concept of mentoring continues to endure, often with an assist from many bar associations. While some bars use more traditional one-on-one matching, others use unique approaches to foster mentoring.

“Having been a partner in firms, I know that you only have so much time you can give to training associates,” says Michael R. Wolford, president of the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association. “As lawyers, we have a responsibility to see that our attorneys are well trained in the law.”

Noticing a trend toward attorney “ignorance of the rules” and a greater number of young lawyers going into solo practice, Wolford helped revitalize the bar’s Mentoring Committee, which has attracted more than 60 mentors in the last year.

At the Middlesex County (N.J.) Bar Association, the success of the mentoring program has led to a companion Colleagues Program, which brings new and experienced lawyers together to talk about “the practical aspects of setting up a legal practice,” says William G. Brigiani, the bar’s Mentoring Committee chair.

Mindful of attorney time demands and aware of the technology available, the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA) has developed a different approach with the Mentor Center—an Internet-based clearinghouse of about 100 mentors and 400 mentees. The burden is on the mentees to log on to the Web site and initiate telephone or e-mail contact with the mentors.

“Newer and younger associates may not want to ask their partners the ‘stupid questions,’” says Melinda Bentley, first assistant counsel for the ISBA. “This was a way for them to get help. We’ve heard a lot of success stories that this was easy to use.”

The bar provides the Web resources, as well as updating mentor/mentee information.

The Maryland State Bar Association implemented a similar Web-based mentoring contact program after getting several calls and e-mails from new attorneys looking for help, according to Patricia Yevics, director of Law Office Management Assistance. The Web site features about 350 mentors and generates about 200 hits a month.

The bar also hosts a popular ListServ that has had several new practitioners join over the last year. “It’s been a huge help for them,” she says. “We are trying to do as much as we can for as many people as we can.”