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Vol. 36, No. 4

Ages & Stages: Bars fight to stay relevant throughout a lawyer’s career

by Robert J. Derocher

Mentoring programs for new lawyers often seem to be at the top of the member wish list at the Rhode Island Bar Association, which is somewhat puzzling to the bar’s communications director, Frederick Massie.

“We’ve tried lots of formats, but the reality has never seemed to live up to the expectations,” he says. “The biggest issue has just been getting new attorneys to make the call.”

At the opposite end of the career spectrum, Patricia Yevics, law office management director of the Maryland State Bar Association, has heard about member interest in retirement planning and winding down a practice.

“But when I ask them if they would come to a seminar, they say, ‘Oh, no, I won’t come because I don’t want anyone else to know that I’m thinking about retiring,’” she says. “It’s difficult to know what a group wants.”

Welcome to the sometimes conflicted, often challenging world of generational assistance and outreach at many of today’s bar associations.

Finding ways to offer the right mix of member support, targeted programming, and relevant service across multiple generations has been an increasing challenge for most associations. Solutions and responses often tend to break along generational lines, many bar executives say, but more recently, many bars are not finding such easy answers.

Fallout from the weak economy—seen most readily in the shortage of jobs for new lawyers and unprecedented law firm layoffs—along with shifting
demographics and ever-advancing technology, have left many bars looking for new ways to meet broader member needs. And while generational splits remain common in program offerings, bars are also looking for ways to reach members at different points in their careers—whether they’re boomers, millennials, or just about any other generation.

Retaining new lawyers

Like many others, the Rhode Island bar has struggled with developing a meaningful mentoring program. Sounding a familiar theme, Massie says young lawyers have been looking for help as many firms are not as economically able to offer that assistance to new associates. Additionally, more new lawyers, saddled with debt and unable to find jobs at large firms, are venturing out into solo and small-firm practice.

Mindful of past mentoring missteps and of new lawyers’ technological savvy, Massie developed an Internet-based program that eliminated the need for bar staff to match up new and experienced attorneys. The program, called  Online Attorney Resources, provides bar members with the names, contact information, and bar admission date of lawyer volunteers who are willing to answer questions concerning particular practice areas, based on the volunteer’s professional knowledge and experience. The newer lawyer crafts a question in such a way that a volunteer should be able to develop an initial response in about 5 minutes’ work.

“The intent is to provide professional assistance to new attorneys,” Massie notes. “We also saw this as a way of bringing generations together, and as a way to acclimate more seasoned attorneys.”

Early feedback on the program is positive, he adds, raising hopes that OAR will be more successful than previous attempts. And as an added bonus for the bar, the program took less than $1,000 to set up and requires minimal staff resources.

“It’s been a fantastic resource for me,” says Kevin Braga, a 41-year-old new lawyer and bar member. “It helps me expand the boundaries of where I feel comfortable.”

The OAR program is particularly beneficial to him and a growing number of lawyers who, like him, are older than most new attorneys, he adds. “It’s a way of networking,” he says. “I have an MBA and I’ve had a career as a sales professional, so I know that networking is extremely important.”

Leaders of the Minnesota State Bar Association, meanwhile, have found that—with or without mentoring programs—it’s a struggle to hold on to new lawyers as members once their free membership expires. Statistics show that the bar loses 20 percent of new lawyers after one year, and by the third year, the loss amounts to nearly 50 percent.

“Bar associations are struggling to remain relevant for young lawyers,” says Brent Routman, the bar’s immediate past president. 

That is why Routman began Committee 36, a program aimed at boosting membership retention after new lawyers’ first 36 months of membership. Rather than centering on mentoring, Committee 36 is a three-year program that provides 36 new lawyers (selected with input from the state’s four law schools) with access to a varied team of dozens of seasoned lawyers, judges, and other professionals. The aim is to help new lawyers with a wide range of issues that go beyond learning the law, giving them what Routman calls “buckets of experts” to address concerns such as managing debt burdens, leadership development, ethics, business development, networking, and work/life balance. 

Routman hopes the program will have the dual benefit of not only helping new lawyers in their careers, but also cultivating the importance of bar membership and leadership and the need for the new lawyers to “pay it forward” in future generations.

“We hope they see the leadership and connections that can be developed if you stay long enough,” he adds. “We want them to be involved and to take advantage of, and to be guided by, what the bar offers.”

Connecting with solos

As many bar associations look for ways to reach new lawyers, an area of focus gaining more attention is in providing more resources and information for new graduates heading into solo and small-firm practice. The dearth of new jobs in shrinking big firms is a major factor in that surge, according to several bar observers.

“We’re seeing lots of new attorneys going solo,” says Leslie Monahan, executive director of the DuPage County (Ill.) Bar Association. The suburban Chicago bar, which is geared primarily to solo and small-firm practitioners, has seen its membership increase from 2,000 to 2,400 in less than a decade.

Monahan says the bar has been focusing more on technology and social media assistance, and directing more CLE programming at new members. As an example of that outreach, the bar recently developed the DuPage County Survival Guide for new lawyers, which provides a wide range of information, such as an explanation of the different divisions of local and state courts, a listing of court clerks, and information on the role and activities of the DCBA.

At the Illinois State Bar Association, immediate past President John Locallo has also seen an influx of new lawyer members who are solos; the bar has beefed up its programs to meet the demand. One new program offers insights into the legal aspects of running your own office, Locallo says, and a special committee has been established primarily for solo and small firms, looking at small-office technology issues, such as hardware, software, and billing systems. Locallo is also closely watching the development of Committee 36 in Minnesota, as well as exploring possible mentoring programs for inexperienced new lawyers.

But some association executives say it’s not just new lawyers who are hanging out their own shingles. For a
variety of reasons—from layoffs to lifestyle changes—more seasoned lawyers are also going out on their own, presenting similar yet different challenges for bar associations.

“Our singles and smaller-firm [members] have definitely increased over the last few years,” says Noreen Nardi, executive director of the Hampden County Bar Association in Springfield, Mass., about 90 miles west of Boston. “I’ve gotten several calls from attorneys in Boston and Hartford [Conn.]. 

“If they’re going out on their own, they’re coming here. To go out on your own in Boston right now is almost

In nearby Rhode Island, Massie notes that of the 65 members who recently signed up for a program aimed at new lawyers on state Superior Court motion calendars, about a third were “seasoned lawyers”—an unusually high number, he says.

“We’re seeing larger firms—many from Chicago—releasing experienced attorneys, who are going solo or are forming smaller firms,” Locallo notes. “And whether they’re old or young, they’re all trying to be more effective in their law practices to try and compete.”

Since 2010, the Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service has seen a noticeable increase in queries about how to start a law firm, according to LOMAS Practice Management Adviser Jerry Sullenberger. While there are no statistics on how many of those callers are new lawyers, experienced lawyers looking to make a change, or seasoned lawyers out of a job, Sullenberger says, “I have a gut feeling that we are seeing more of [the third category], since the economy has caused law firms to cut back, and I know those layoffs have hit all ranges of attorneys—even equity partners in some instances.”

Yevics says she has not seen a real uptick in new lawyers going solo in Maryland, but she has recently conducted two programs for those who are going solo for the first time. While some attendees were likely those who lost jobs in the down economy, Yevics also believes that for many solos, “It’s a time preference. They were not forced to do it.

“People are willingly leaving big law firms. They’re saying, ‘Is this the way I want to spend the rest of my life? I want to have control of my practice.’ ”

Helping senior lawyers

For many lawyers, having control of their practices—whether as solos or in firms—also means having an eye on retirement. While millions of baby boomers began reaching the traditional retirement age of 65 last year, lawyers often aren’t the traditional retiring type—and often don’t think about it, many bar leaders say.

Sullenberger points to a 2007 survey by legal consultants Altman Weil, which found that 61 percent of respondents said they would continue to work in some capacity after “retirement,” with 48 percent of these lawyers planning to continue practicing law.

“There are major issues for senior lawyers on transitioning out of practice:  They’re economic, they’re business control, they’re security, and they’re emotional,” says Peter Giuliani, a law firm management expert who is a frequent presenter on firm management and succession planning for the New York State Bar Association.  It’s an issue that affects solos and firms, in metro areas and in rural settings, Giuliani says.

In New York, he says, there are growing numbers of solos with inadequate plans for succession or transitioning of clients if those solos should die or become disabled for any amount of time. In addition, there is  concern about older solos who aren’t keeping current with technology and business management practices.

“They’re walking malpractice risks. If they keep practicing like this, the concern is that they’ll screw up,” he says. “And the problem is that in many states, the state bar is the licensing agency.”

There are similar concerns at law firms, Giuliani adds, with fears not only that older lawyers could expose the firm to more liability, but also that those lawyers might take more work away from newer ones. 

And even among lawyers who didn’t lose their jobs in the economic downturn of the last few years, many saw investments tumble, providing an impetus for lawyers approaching retirement age to hang on a little longer, Giuliani and others say.

“We kinda want to retire. We kinda don’t,” says Phil Garland, 67, co-chair of the Rural Practice Committee of the Iowa State Bar Association. “The question is, where do you make money now? In the stock market? In real estate? There’s no place I’m going to make money, except to earn it the old-fashioned way—working.”

For rural-practicing solo lawyers such as himself, Garland adds, the challenges of transitioning out of practice are compounded by the fact that new law school graduates are either unwilling or financially unable to live and work in slower-paced, lower-paying areas far from major metropolitan hubs.

“A lot of new lawyers say they need $60,000 a year to start [to pay off loan debts],” Garland says. “Let me tell you, that’s a big pull in small-town Iowa.”

Reaching any age, any stage, any setting

Despite challenges that sometimes unite or split generations of lawyers, bar associations are working to meet those demands, while still confronting their own challenges to be relevant and rich with resources for members.

In Iowa, Garland is helping lead a rural clerkship program this summer, matching seven students from nearby law schools with small-town lawyers,
with the hope that maybe a few of them might see some attraction and value in practicing law in places like Garner, Iowa (population 3,129), where Garland has been practicing for more than 30 years. The bar is providing housing
assistance to the students as Garland and other lawyers provide hands-on experience and a glimpse of what they see as the value of living and practicing in a small town. Garland also hopes to get something out of the experience.

“I’m looking forward to this,” he says. “I think the students today need to learn more about being a lawyer, but I also need to learn from them. We both can learn from each other.”

In some of his most recent presentations to NYSBA members, Giuliani has sought to cut across generational lines by urging older solo lawyers to consider merging their practices with other solos or small firms, and by suggesting that younger solo practitioners consider merging with other young solos. The bar is leveraging technology to help reach more members, Giuliani says, by providing webcasts of his presentations via the bar website. 

“The appetite for downloading and rebroadcasting is huge,” he says. “Webcasts are essential.”

While the Maryland State Bar Association’s “Hanging Out Your Shingle” program and solo lawyer conference remain popular, Yevics says the MSBA also actively runs Listservs, produces webinars, and provides other technology-related
activities and support to members.

“Bar associations have to continually stay on top of technology or risk losing younger members, particularly at voluntary bars,” she says.

For Noreen Nardi at the Hampden County bar, reaching different generations of bar members means using everything from Twitter accounts to faxes and the U.S. Mail to get out news and information on bar activities. “We’ve worked hard at being really diverse,” she says.  “We reach them any way we can.”

Despite all the technology at members’ disposal, and regardless of their age, their practice area, where they live, or if they’re in a firm or on their own, many bar executives say that good, old-fashioned human contact remains critical for lawyers, and that bar associations of all sizes are still some of the best holders of that currency. That much was made clear to Yevics when she noticed that members of a Listserv for solos were making arrangements to meet with some of the people they were chatting with online.

“People are trying to connect on a personal level,” she says.  “[Young lawyers] like Facebook—until they start to feel isolated. They’re finding that it’s a great tool, but that’s all it is.”

That’s something Brent Routman hopes that the groups of lawyers making their way through Committee 36 will find when it comes time to renew their bar membership in coming years.

“They don’t realize how important the bar association is. You can’t really develop a career and a client base through social networking,” Routman says. “They really need a personal relationship with the bar.”

It’s a relationship, he says, that can last a lifetime. BL

William R. Bay is chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services and a partner in the St. Louis office of Thompson Coburn LLP.