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Vol. 38, No. 2

More than free CLE: How bar communicators, membership directors are helping new lawyers

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“Law school debt is the house they’ll never be able to live in,” said Alexa Giacomini, director of marketing and membership at the Illinois State Bar Association.

With 45 percent of new law grads unable to find jobs in the profession within nine months after graduation, and a typical law school debt of $100,000 to $150,000, many new lawyers can’t afford home ownership for years down the road, she explained—and many move back in with their parents.

And it’s not just home ownership that gets put off, Giacomini told attendees at the September 2013 National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop in Portland, Ore. It’s other life milestones as well, such as getting married and having children. Many end up suffering with anxiety or depression, she added.

From 2007 to 2011, the number of new law grads in Illinois going directly into solo practice tripled, Giacomini said, noting that this is often done without adequate financing and can lead to ethical breaches and malpractice.

With statistics and anecdotes similarly bleak across the country, how can bar associations help? Sharing some ideas, along with Giacomini, were Heather Clark, director of communications and marketing at the Denver and Colorado Bar Associations, and Sam Houston, a Texas Young Lawyers Association board member.

New, not young

Giacomini believes the terms new lawyer and young lawyer are not interchangeable: There’s a marked difference between lawyers who graduated before the recession and those coming out now, she explained.

One vivid example, she said, was when a young lawyer suggested member discounts at a high-end tailoring business that also offers custom-made suits—something that is far outside the realm of a new lawyer who might have to save up to buy a suit off the rack.

As a young lawyer himself, Houston agreed with this assessment. “People younger than me apparently grow up on a different planet,” he joked. Whether it’s because of the economy or generational differences, Houston noted, career information for new lawyers needs to include details that seem obvious to older generations, such as that it’s best to wear a dark suit to job interviews.

Practical, mixed-age events

When it comes to getting new lawyers to attend events, free CLE is not always the golden ticket, Clark said; often, what those lawyers are seeking is not so much credits as connections—and not just with other new lawyers.  After many unsuccessful attempts to get older lawyers to attend new lawyers’ social events, Clark noted, the bar is now working on helping the new lawyers feel comfortable attending events where older lawyers will be.

Giacomini added that new lawyers often prefer “small bites” of information—and relevant to practice and career—over lengthy CLEs.

The ISBA now offers online financial planning information for new and young lawyers, Giacomini said, and discounts on LawPay, a service that helps lawyers accept and process credit card payments. Fastcase online legal research continues to be popular, she noted, and the bar is currently working on providing it to law students for free.

Clark said a training session this past summer on representing moderate-income clients, particularly via unbundling of services, was very popular, and another is slated for later this year. She knows of one new lawyer who has built her entire practice around unbundled services. Thanks to a grant from the ABA, she noted, the Denver and Colorado bars have started a Listserv devoted to this topic.

Another favorite, she said, was a program called “Getting a Grip on Your Student Loans,” featuring nationally recognized student loan expert Heather Jarvis.

Moderator Holly Priestner, Communications Division director at the State Bar of Texas, said that her bar scored an immediate hit with a course on alternative careers. It filled up just minutes after an e-blast went out, Priestner noted.

Alternative career information

Providing information about the many different law-related career options has recently been a big focus for TYLA, Houston said—it’s something that “law schools don’t do a great job with,” he believes.

That’s one reason TYLA developed “What Do Lawyers Do?,” an interactive, online project that features interviews with lawyers in all different practice settings and related careers.

TYLA also works at the other end of the pipeline, Houston noted, by “myth busting” some common misconceptions held by law firm partners regarding the expense of hiring new lawyers and the type of administrative support and staffing they require.

The ISBA, meanwhile, has been working on a number of different fronts, Giacomini said, such as by facilitating an apprenticeship model where a new lawyer spends part of his or her time working for a law firm and part of the time learning how to practice, and by helping to connect new lawyers with rural practitioners who wish to retire.

Dues assistance

At the DBA and CBA, Clark said, the retention rate for new lawyers once they leave the free membership period has been frustratingly low.

Her bar associations have offered dues assistance in the past, but “It’s always been hidden,” Clark said, adding that only about 30 people a year used to sign up for it. To keep new lawyers in the fold, the CBA and DBA have changed their approach, she said: The availability of dues assistance is made very clear on the website, and it’s even mentioned on dues renewal notices.

Now, she said, more than 200 members are getting some amount of dues assistance, and Clark doesn’t feel as if they’re taking undue advantage of the bar associations. Most don’t ask for a full waiver, she noted, and one successful applicant sent a check for the full dues once she got a job.

Wishful thinking?

Giacomini said one new lawyer was told by his law school that the current law employment and student loan crisis “will all work itself out.” Unless or until that happens, the panelists agreed, it’s important that bar associations help new lawyers however they can.