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Vol. 34, No. 2

Community spirit: members are busy, but bars help them connect

by Robert J. Derocher

Much has been said—and written—about how busy lawyers are these days. There’s so much pressure to bill so many hours, this line of thinking goes, that it’s near impossible to pry today’s lawyer away from his or her desk—or BlackBerry. Add in family time, factor in the grim economic climate and, well, there goes happy hour.

There’s more than a grain of truth in the above scenario; many bars have seen attendance at once-popular events—including midyear or even annual meetings—drop off dramatically over the last few years. But many bars are discovering another truth: Lawyers still crave community, and the bar is often the ideal place for them to find it.

Perhaps there’s life yet in the concept of mentoring, many have found, and all it takes is making sure the format is a good fit. Maybe lawyers really will show up for a social event—particularly if you do some research first to find out what it is they like to do. And if they really, truly are too busy to get together? That’s where communications tools, old and new, can come in. Whether through mentoring programs, special events, president’s columns, or Web sites, leaders across the country are finding ways to bring lawyers together and make the bar feel like a place where everybody knows your name.

Mentoring takes many different approaches

New York City attorney Andrea Vacca fondly recalls the time when a little lawyer mentoring was followed by a little baby mentoring.

“We had three or four members [of our mentoring circle] who were having children around the same time, so we had a baby shower for them,” she says. “When you have a circle like this, you have a group of women that are not only colleagues, but they’re friends.”

Vacca is a long-time participant, and now co-chair, of the New York Women’s Bar Association Mentoring Circles program, which brings together as many as a dozen women attorneys who meet regularly in groups to share experience and ideas and to provide support and fellowship.

In an age when free time is precious and bar associations are striving to provide opportunities to bolster a sense of community among members and their often-varied interests, mentoring—particularly in nontraditional ways—can play an important role in meeting time and community challenges while strengthening the bar, leaders say.

With the bar’s support, they add, mentoring programs can provide learning and social opportunities for lawyers, while making associations more vital in helping their members find the work-life balance many are looking for.

“You’re trying to promote a dialogue for people to talk about what’s on their minds,” says Ida Abbott, a lawyer and management consultant in Oakland, Calif., and author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Mentoring. “The idea is for people to learn about all aspects of being a lawyer.”

While one-on-one mentoring between older, experienced mentors and young, new-lawyer mentees can be valuable, Abbott says, lawyers—and bar associations—are increasingly finding different approaches helpful, such as mentoring among groups and among lawyers in similar practice areas, gender, race or ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

“There’s enormous comfort in knowing you’re not the only one dealing with certain issues,” Abbott says. “It can be easier to [talk about issues] in a bar association group. It will be a little looser—and what’s discussed in the room, stays in the room.”

In New York, as many as 10 to 12 women participate in each mentoring circle, covering a varied mix of experience, practice areas, personal, and professional backgrounds, Vacca says. From there, each group sets its own agenda and meeting schedule, usually meeting every six to eight weeks in a variety of locations such as restaurants, homes, and law offices of participants.

“The beauty of it is that the mentoring flows in all directions,” Vacca says. “Quite often, it goes the other way,” as older members learn more about newer trends and thoughts from younger members.

Many circles also tend to build lasting bonds among the members. Vacca says her particular circle has been meeting fairly regularly for the last five years, with just a few members leaving and being replaced by other bar members.

Vacca belongs to other bars and has been in more traditional mentoring programs, but she says that “in 17 years as an attorney, this is the only time I can say that [this mentoring] helps on a personal level, as well as on a professional level. And that’s where you get breakthroughs.”

She believes so strongly in the concept that she is currently trying to reinvigorate the program at the NYWBA, where participation has dropped off recently. More than 100 members have signed on to participate in a new set of circles that were planned to start this fall.

Several bar members of different backgrounds have also taken to the group mentoring concept launched earlier this year by the Boston Bar Association. Under the program, a group of about seven attorneys, each with less than eight years of experience, are led by two experienced mentors. They meet regularly at the bar’s headquarters and will stay together for one year.

Christina Miller, an attorney and former co-chair of the Massachusetts Lesbian & Gay Bar Association, co-leads one such mentoring group, made up of members of the Boston bar’s Diversity & Inclusion Section. Her group meets every other week, rotating times to accommodate schedules. The members include lawyers in firm practice, government, and the nonprofit sector.

While diversity unites them, she says, the practice variety in the group and the experience of the mentors help create different individual connections and different dynamics at each meeting. Miller recalls one member who was facing her first court trial. “She got five or six different strategies out of the group. In a way, they mentor each other,” she says. “They feel bonded with each other, which is great. Where else can you get that feeling?”

That bonding, she adds, will not only likely lead to lasting legal friendships, but it may also foster a sense of community and attachment to the Boston bar. Involvement and future leadership opportunities at the bar have been topics at one of the mentoring meetings.

“Associating this with the Boston Bar Association creates an atmosphere that says, ‘I’m truly welcome here,’ ” Miller says. “It’s so important for bar associations to be looking to the next generation and to bring them into the fold.”

Building on the mentoring relationships

Mixing the traditional younger/older mentoring model with a social element has proven successful for the last 16 years at the Multnomah (Ore.) Bar Association. Newer attorneys are paired with those with 10 or more years in practice. In addition to regular one-on-one meetings, the six-month program includes a group kickoff meeting and at least one bar event—such as a social outing or CLE—where mentees will meet other lawyers or judges.

The program regularly matches 60 to 70 lawyers per session, and many mentors and mentees find that the relationship continues beyond the semistructured setting, says Kathy Maloney, director of events and programs at the bar. As an added element of appreciation—and as a way to encourage more mentoring—the bar recently added a “Mentor of the Year” award to make all bar members aware of their contributions.

“Some people don’t realize what they have to offer to a younger lawyer,” Maloney says. “I think this [program] makes people feel like a part of the bigger picture and a bigger community at the bar.”

In Wisconsin, the Dane County Bar Association has become the only bar in the state to offer a structured mentoring program that is successfully bringing members together, according to Joseph Melli, the lawyer who helped launch the program three years ago. The program began with 10 experienced mentors and 10 mentees, quickly doubling the next year.

The DCBA has at least three group events at the bar that bring larger groups of mentors and mentees together. Mentors also encourage mentees to get involved in bar activities, supplying them with written material promoting the bar. And like many other mentoring efforts, Melli says, some of the best results occur after the one-year program ends.

“They continue to meet, they become good friends, and there’s a relationship that’s established,” he says. “It really gets people involved with the bar. People are very enthusiastic about it.”

Ida Abbott encourages bar associations to continue to play active roles in establishing, promoting, and supporting whatever sort of mentoring structure seems to work best for their members. While face-to-face mentoring works best, she says, encouraging the use of e-mail, message boards, and other means of contact for mentors and mentees is also key in the always busy legal world.

“[Bars] need to keep encouraging members to expand their networks,” Abbott says. “That’s when mentoring opportunities arise.”

Social events: Beyond happy hour

One bar has found that some good food, healthy competition, active promotion, and thorough member research can combine to make a 1,100-member bar association feel like home.

“The traditional ‘happy hour’ type get-together just doesn’t appeal to most members any more,” says Fran Czajka, executive director of the Anne Arundel Bar Association in Annapolis, Md. “Sports are an integral part of building the bar and the relationships among members.”

Along with two traditional golf tournaments, the bar hosts a 12-team bowling league each year and a similarly sized softball league that has been bringing together lawyers, office coworkers, families, and agencies in the state’s capital city together for nearly two decades.

“[Softball] is every Thursday night during the summer, and everybody looks forward to it,” says Ted Staples, a past bar president. “One of the most important things for a bar association to have is to provide a social outlet.”

Another longstanding tradition at the bar, which is located near the Chesapeake Bay, is the annual Crab Feast, which is free to all members. The feast annually attracts at least 250 to 300 people, Staples says, noting, “It’s hard to be rude and surly [with a legal adversary] if you’re sharing a beer and a crab.”

In his time as president, Staples found that active promotion of bar activities and using his position as a “bully pulpit” helped bring the bar closer together, particularly through social activities and charitable efforts. “We sent out a lot of e-mail updates and a lot of blast faxes, but I made a lot of personal phone calls to people,” he recalls. “The more you promote something, the more you get people out.”

For Czajka, research has been an important part of setting the bar’s agenda and structuring activities geared to as many members as possible.

“We use a lot of member survey tools—online surveys, event surveys. You have to take polls and ask questions. It’s very valuable,” she says. “We look at the membership and the surveys. We study what ages people are, their lifestyles.”

While not everything works—a kickball league faded after a few years—Czajka says the research gives the bar plenty of ideas on what to do to reach out to members. And for now, she says, one sport appears to be king.

“Softball has really worked to build the collegial atmosphere here,” she says. “You hear so many people talk about it.”

Connection through communications

Bill Jonas is a lawyer who likes to tell stories. His favorites are about other lawyers in Indiana doing good, like the young attorney who was once the state foster parent of the year, and the retired judge who bought and opened a house for homeless veterans.

And for the last year, his favorite place to tell those stories has been in his presidential column in the Indiana State Bar Association journal.

“It’s struck a chord with a segment of the bar we don’t often hear from. I’ve gotten more than a hundred letters, e-mails, and calls from people, telling me they liked [the columns],” Jonas says. “It’s nice to hear what [lawyers] are doing. It’s been very rewarding for me.”

It can be challenging to reach out to hundreds or, as at the ISBA, thousands of bar members, but as Jonas and other bar leaders have discovered, using some old (magazines and newsletters) and some new (Web sites and blogs) communication tools can be a successful way to do it. Matching faces with names, spotlighting individuals and small groups, and talking up member achievements—both inside and outside the law—provide some needed opportunities to build community within the bar, they say.

“Bar associations should just jump in and establish a presence on Facebook and Twitter—and continue to use the Web site for communicating,” says John Sirman, Web manager for the State Bar of Texas and the technology editor for the Texas Bar Journal. “It makes sense for the bar association to provide this service for their members.”

An increasingly popular feature on the bar’s Web site, Sirman says, is its blog. In addition to the usual news updates and interesting anecdotes aimed at lawyers is a feature called “Random Profiles.” The bar randomly selects one of its 80,000 members, asks a few questions, and creates a quick profile. As the feature states: We’ve found that every Texas lawyer has an interesting story. Will yours be next?

Member feedback has been positive for the blogs, Sirman says, as well as for the bar’s most recent Web-based effort, the Texas Bar Circle. The circle, a Facebook-like social networking Web site exclusively for bar members, has more than 11,000 registered lawyers. In addition to legal talk, the network features several groups that venture outside the law, Sirman says, such as Biker Barristers for motorcycle enthusiasts and Houston Rocks for Houston-area rock music fans.

“Some people are making personal connections based on their hobbies and interests,” he notes. “All these things create a sense of community.”

The 5,000-member Columbus (Ohio) Bar Association redesigned its entire Web site earlier this year with a focus on more information and interaction for members, says Jill Snitcher McQuain, the bar’s assistant executive director. The bar spent more than a year crafting the new site, relying heavily on the input of bar members and staff, she says.

One result of the revamp is a dedicated Web page for each bar committee, prominently featuring photos of the committee chairs, personal messages from the members, and links to e-mail discussion groups. “We use real people in real photos with real quotes,” McQuain adds. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from that.”

Each committee will eventually have its own dedicated liaison to the bar’s Web staff, she notes, which will allow the committee to easily update its Web page. The committee pages will also likely use more member-generated content and focus on interactive message boards to replace Listservs. (For more about the CBA’s redesign, see “New, improved, and easier to use: A look at some recent Web redesigns,” page 6.)

The Illinois State Bar Association, with more than 30,000 members, turned to a newspaper writer and editor earlier this year to become the bar’s director of member communications—which includes the roles of social networking editor and chief blogger. The new blog attracted more than 9,300 unique visits in its first month and more than 14,000 in its first two months, says David Anderson, the bar’s associate executive director.

“We realize lawyers are social creatures, and if we can provide a playing field that helps them a little bit, that’s what we’ll do,” he says. “The big task is to communicate with lawyers who are looking for a home away from home.”

While New Hampshire is a geographically small state that allows lawyers to get together more easily, more members of the New Hampshire Bar Association are turning to the bar’s publications and Web site to stay in touch, according to Dan Wise, the bar’s communications director.

One of the more popular sections of the NHBA’s Bar News is called “Giving Back,” which features the volunteer efforts of different bar members. “It tries to show the role of lawyers in community leadership,” Wise says. “They’re very popular stories for members. We know people like to read about these things.”

The bar’s Web site has also featured plenty of photos of members involved in activities both law related and more social or personal. Among the more popular recent features were one highlighting an overseas trip taken by members involved in an international rule of law program, and another about a pick-up hockey game among several members. The bar also has Facebook and LinkedIn pages accessible to members (For more information on ways bars are using social media sites to build community, see “Brave new world?: Bars explore Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn,” September-October 2009, page 8.)

While a regular printed newsletter is still popular with the Anne Arundel bar members, the bar’s Web site has become a popular place to post photos of members involved in legal and community activities, Czajka says. “We like to have them show themselves off,” she explains.

Many bar members don’t often like to do that, Jonas says, which is why he likes to keep writing about many of his bar’s “unsung members.” He thinks it is important for all members to read and see that they are not alone in the many things they do, both inside and outside the law office.

“So much of what we do is adversarial,” he says. “I think lawyers appreciate the opportunity to do things that are contributing to the community, rather than destroying their opponent.”