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Vol. 35, No. 1

Ask, listen, connect: Bar leaders report how they’re reaching young lawyers

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Having read or heard about the time pressures and crushing debt faced by young lawyers, you might think a great way to attract them to bar activities would be a cheap CLE seminar that fulfills MCLE requirements.

Think again, said Helen D. McDonald, executive director of the Rhode Island Bar Association. As her bar worked to determine why a previously thriving young lawyers committee had petered out, she and the newly created New Attorney Advancement Task Force quickly learned that young lawyers have different priorities than they’d expected.

Affordability was important, McDonald told attendees at the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives at the group’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco this August. But there was something else young lawyers wanted far more than a low price; the task force heard them saying, “ ‘I want CLE that’s going to get me something—fast.’ ”

This insight led the bar to develop CLE programs that addressed career-building topics such as dressing for success, how to work a room, and rainmaking, and fun topics such as how to write a novel. These weren’t the usual “bridge the gap” programs on the nuts and bolts of how to practice, McDonald stressed; instead, the goal was to help young lawyers get an edge and move their careers forward.

Attendees responded well to these small, targeted programs, McDonald said, and “they didn’t care that it wasn’t for MCLE.” The CLE programs created goodwill toward the bar, she noted, not only because the young lawyers picked up valuable tips, but also because the bar had listened to what they wanted.

Joining McDonald to discuss their own successes and challenges in attracting and retaining younger lawyers were: Laura Myers, a young lawyer from Rochester, N.Y., and John Norwine, executive director of the Cincinnati Bar Association. Mary Corbitt, executive director of the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association, moderated the discussion.

Starting off on the right foot

McDonald paraphrased the first communication new admittees used to receive from her bar, which is unified: “ ‘Here’s your registration form, and you’ll be getting a bill in a year.’ ” Not the best way to start a relationship—which is why immediate past president Victoria Almeida wanted to make sure the bar was present for swearing-in ceremonies, which it hadn’t been in the past.

At a swearing-in during her term, Almeida stood up with the chief judge, gave a speech, and presented each new lawyer with a quill pen as a nice, yet inexpensive gift. Proud parents were there, and overall, it was an extremely positive experience for the bar to be part of, McDonald said.

As for the Monroe County bar, it used to be that new admittees received a form letter to congratulate them and introduce them to what the bar had to offer. Now, said Laura Myers, a past chair of the bar’s Young Lawyers Section, bar leaders are asked to look at the twice-yearly list of new admittees to see whether any are from their own law schools or have something else in common with them. If so, the leader sends a letter that is still fairly standardized but that also makes a personal connection.

Small changes like that can make a big difference, the panelists said, and the personal touch is especially important. This is true not just for new admittees, but also to encourage young lawyers to get more involved with the bar once they’ve started their careers.

McDonald mentioned a popular “speed networking” event (see “Making the connection: In a high-tech age, young lawyers value the personal touch,” page 6) that aimed to recruit more young lawyers for the bar’s committees by helping them connect personally with the committee chairs. The event was free, and included wine and food—important for an event aimed at young lawyers, McDonald said.

Each chair was given the goal to have five young lawyers signed up for his or her committee by the event’s end. The president was also there to discuss pro bono opportunities. Every young lawyer who attended signed up for a committee, and many also asked to be considered for seats in the bar’s House of Delegates, McDonald said, calling it the most successful young lawyers’ event the bar had conducted in years.

Asking—and listening

When Myers got involved with the MCBA’s Young Lawyers Section as chair-elect in 2008, there were two or three CLEs a year that were aimed at young lawyers, but they were not necessarily targeted to their interests. There were also two or three annual social events held in conjunction with the New York State Bar Association. Overall, the YLS was not very involved in planning its own events.

“To run a section and do a good job, you need a lot of good people,” Myers said, explaining that the leadership committee for the YLS expanded so the section could become more active.

The first step, she said, was to survey young lawyers to find out why they weren’t interested in the section as it was. Respondents expressed a strong interest in two areas that they felt weren’t being adequately addressed: social and business networking, and community outreach.

The survey respondents didn’t want the usual happy hour, Myers said; instead, they wanted more active ways to meet and network with other lawyers. As a result, the section has since held successful events at which, for example, young lawyers go to a hockey game or play paddle tennis at a local gym. Free food and drink do help, Myers said, but they aren’t the primary focus.

As for community outreach, this was something the section had never done before, Myers said. Spurred by the survey results, section leaders linked up with the Rochester Teen Court, a peer-based diversionary program that aims to redirect some juvenile offenders without their acquiring a criminal record.

In order to support this worthy law-related cause while also increasing the section’s profile, in 2009 the section hosted a “big, flagship event” that was open to the whole bar—a silent auction that was attended by 25 people and raised $2,000 for the financially struggling Teen Court. This year, Myers said, the section is offering hands-on assistance, with young lawyers helping to moderate the peer discussions.

Just as young lawyers have been clear in telling the Rhode Island bar task force what they do want, McDonald has received clear indications of what they don’t want. Though mentoring programs have been successful in many states, McDonald has found this is not the best way to engage and involve her state’s young lawyers. “I don’t think new lawyers are looking for that kind of relationship,” she said, since many are very busy starting their careers—and, in many cases, their families as well.

Instead of traditional mentoring, she said, the bar offers to partner a member who is unfamiliar with a particular area of practice with another member who practices that type of law and can share expertise—provided that the member who is less familiar will take a pro bono case once he or she is up to speed.

Making young lawyers visible

Besides having the YLS conduct an event for the whole bar, the panelists mentioned other ways their bars involve the YLS section or young lawyers in general with the larger organization to prevent isolation and encourage ongoing participation in bar activities.

One way the MCBA’s Corbitt got the section involved with the overall life of the bar was to bring together two different generations. Recently, when the bar honored its 50-year members, the award presenters were all members of the YLS committee. Members found this to be a “poignant moment,” especially since, as the bar president noted, 14 out of 15 honorees were men, whereas all the presenters were women.

The MCBA’s website has a “photo of the week” feature where Corbitt highlights different groups and events around the bar. She spotlights YLS events there from time to time, including the recent paddle tennis outing.

Just as executive directors make presidents aware of the bar’s various activities and programs, McDonald believes young lawyers need similar communication. If a bar event such as Law Day is coming up, she said, the executive director should make sure that young lawyers know about it and are encouraged to get involved.

Training new leaders

Where the Cincinnati Bar Association has succeeded in encouraging young, or at least, fairly early-career lawyers to remain active in the bar and take leadership positions is through its Cincinnati Academy of Leadership for Lawyers (see “Growth potential: Training helps bars broaden the circle of leadership,” March-April 2004, page 10).

Over the past 13 years, John Norwine said, more than 350 lawyers have gone through the CALL program. On the bar’s 24-member Board of Trustees are 13 CALL graduates, one of whom will be president next year. Four of the last five presidents have been CALL alumni. Other CALL alumni are serving in other leadership positions throughout the bar and on the Board of Trustees of the Cincinnati Bar Foundation.

CALL is one of the older and better known bar leadership academies, which typically involve lawyers meeting over the course of several months to discuss and learn about topics such as leadership, ethics, and professionalism, and to plan and conduct a service project.

From the initial planning through the graduation of the first CALL class, bar staff spent 1,200 hours building and staffing the program, Norwine said. That first year, the bar spent $12,000 more on CALL than it brought in via tuition (but $5,000 from the firm of CALL’s founder did help offset that). CALL is now generally self-sustaining, Norwine noted.

The bar sends out applications and selects participants in fall, and the new class begins in January and concludes in May. The tuition is $1,350; in most cases, the applicant’s firm pays the tuition. For individuals who don’t have this support, there are now scholarships available through the law firm of CALL’s founder.

Another type of support is important, Norwine noted: The program is weakened if a participant’s firm says he or she can’t attend a particular session because of a court date or other obligation. Under a heading called “Participation Requirements,” the application form clarifies all the date and time expectations, and that attendance at all events, in their entirety, is mandatory. To be extra sure, the form now includes check boxes to indicate that the applicant is able to meet all the time requirements—and that his or her employer is giving full support in terms of time off.

Many firms enthusiastically allow the time off and pay for their attorneys to attend CALL, perhaps in part, Norwine explained, because the CLE hours that are included make it a good investment. Generally, he added, firms aren’t as sanguine regarding ongoing participation in the bar’s Young Lawyers Section. During an associate’s first year, he explained, the firm often doesn’t mind if he or she attends an event after work, but as the lawyer proceeds on his or her career path, CALL may be perceived as a better investment. There’s not a lot of crossover between CALL and the YLS, he noted; they each seem to attract different lawyers.

The bar’s YLS is also successful, Norwine said, but as members begin to age out, “they all tail off and we never see them again.” Presidents are always supportive of the YLS, he noted, but not many of them begin their leadership track there: Of the last 30 YLS chairs, just two have become bar president. In fact, he added, only 19 of the bar’s past 30 YLS chairs are still bar members at all. Norwine was frank in expressing his disappointment with those figures.

The role of the executive director

Myers gave Corbitt much of the credit for the success of her bar’s YLS. Even with a strong committee in place, she recalled, she relied heavily on Corbitt’s “wisdom and connections.”

Those connections are often important, Myers and Corbitt said, when lining up big-name speakers or finding sponsors to underwrite a YLS event. Quite often, Corbitt contacts decision makers at big firms, insurance companies, banks, and other likely sponsors for YLS events because she gets a better response than the YLS would on its own. At one point, when the YLS was planning its silent auction, Corbitt said, “ ‘Let me see if I can get a better deal on that’ ”—and she did.

As an executive director working to support a YLS and young lawyers in general, “being available and open is the best thing you can do,” Myers said—and don’t assume that your approachability goes without saying.

“If Mary hadn’t made clear, ‘You can come to me if you have questions,’ I don’t think I would have,” Myers said.

One benefit of such openness and such a close relationship with the YLS is that Corbitt has many opportunities to interact with its members and thus, be visible to young lawyers. She also simply enjoys being around them.

“I’m fun, so I’ve been invited to their wine club,” she noted. “I’m the oldest one there.”