chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
Vol. 40, No. 2

Less ‘stuff,’ more connection: How bar associations can reach Millennial members

by Marilyn Cavicchia

For years now, bar associations have been hearing about Millennial or Generation Y members and what they want and expect as they enter the profession and contemplate bar membership.

And now, the largest generation in history has arrived, beginning to move from law students and brand-new lawyers to, as Ann Murphy, director of communications at The Bar Association of San Francisco put it, “young lawyers who are making an impact.”

In fact, they’re no longer just making an impact in young lawyers’ groups: In 2014 and 2015, the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Bar Association has had back-to-back presidents who were young lawyers, said Dawnell Blaylock, communications coordinator at the CCCBA.

With Sarah Sladek’s new book Knowing Y: Engage the Next Generation Now as an additional foundation, Murphy and Blaylock shared their own observations and ideas with attendees at the 2015 NABE Communications Section Workshop in Orlando.

No ‘stuff’

Unlike previous generations that tended to move to big houses in the suburbs and fill them with collectibles and other material objects, Murphy said, Millennials tend to travel light. They often prefer urban areas, she said, and they don’t want to acquire a lot of “stuff.”

The problem, she added, is that they often don’t want to acquire memberships, either—or at least, not as a matter of course and without being sure they’ll get a good return on that investment. It isn’t that they’re cheap, Murphy noted; after all, this is the generation that’s willing to wait in line for several hours in order to spend $500 on the new iPhone.

“They don’t mind spending money on something,” Murphy explained, “but you have to make sure it’s what they want.”

Because this generation is very tech savvy, the best way to find out what they want is to email them a survey—right? Actually, no. “They don’t work,” Murphy believes. She’d rather see her bar and others move toward “casual focus groups” in which seven to 12 people chat over drinks. The conversation would be recorded on a cell phone, she added, and then brought back to CLE or whichever bar department needs the information.

When determining whether to buy—or join—something, Murphy noted, Millennials often ask their peers and/or read online reviews first, on sites such as Yelp.

Checking reviews and ratings also applies to apps and whether to download them; Blaylock noted that the CCCBA’s recently developed app, available for both iPhone and Android, has a four-star rating. The iPhone version has been especially popular, she added, with 237 downloads to date—which represents 22 percent of the bar’s total membership.

Effective use of technology

As great as it is to have an app, it’s also important that the bar’s website be automatically responsive to whatever type of device it’s being viewed on, Blaylock and Murphy agreed.

Prompted in part by one of the back-to-back young presidents' focus on more effective communication, the CCCBA underwent a redesign to ensure that the website presented well on mobile devices. Nationwide, Blaylock said, in the past year or so, Internet use from mobile devices has overtaken desktop use.

Murphy, who added that 80 percent of cell phone users nationwide say they read articles and email on their phone, said BASF is in phase one of rolling out a mobile site, starting with its departments that generate revenue.

Elsewhere on the technology front, one thing Murphy is thinking about—and hopes the bar as a whole will consider—is eliminating e-newsletters. A five-minute video report may now be a more effective way to deliver news, she believes.

Social media presence is now more or less a given, and both bars are active on a variety of platforms. But as older generations have embraced Facebook in particular, Murphy noted, many Millennials have moved on to other things.

Rather than just keeping up with what’s popular today, she added, “We have to be sure that we know what’s going on next.”

Whatever technology you use, Murphy said, it’s important to keep a close eye on the basics—any technology you have must be “100 percent operational, 24/7.”

This includes making sure there are no dead spots in the bar building itself. Particularly for Millennial members, Murphy said, “it’s terrible if it’s not working.” Even something as simple as adding charging stations to all the meeting rooms can make a big difference, she added.

Events and service matter, too

Though it is true that Millennials are “digital natives” and always electronically connected, that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate in-person events. The CCBA has had success with a number of events that have appealed to younger members, Blaylock said; these have included expos related to particular practice areas, mixers with section leaders and board members, mentor/mentee speed-matching events, and a “Trials 101” program that was a hit with more established lawyers as well.

At the time Blaylock spoke, her bar was planning a pro bono mixer. In part as a way to tap into younger lawyers’ desire to serve, the CCBA has been promoting pro bono via its magazine, e-blasts, and website.

Young lawyers with less experience are allowed to join modest means and limited scope panels within the bar's lawyer referral and information service once they complete online training, Blaylock said, noting that the CCCBA recently added texting as a way to communicate LRIS appointment information.

More openness, less hierarchy

Millennials’ distaste for organizational hierarchy has been well documented; Murphy introduced a new angle, which was that it’s not just the volunteer leadership and governance structure that matters. The bar’s staff structure, too, should be less like a ladder and more like a lattice, she believes.

Rather than the traditional management development pipeline with a very proscribed career path, Murphy thinks bar associations could take a tip from BASF and develop a system of pathways that allow “room for movement and growth” regardless of whether a staff member aspires to reach the management level.

Also, just as volunteers in many bar associations are moving toward short-term task forces rather than more static committees, BASF has been putting together small working teams of staff members to focus on particular projects, and the traditional management meeting has become a monthly think tank.

As another way to stay fresh, Murphy added, bar associations could ask that staff members spend a certain percentage of their time concentrating on forward-thinking ideas or on volunteering.

Now that Millennials make up more than 50 percent of the workforce, changing the bar’s internal operations may be in order, not just to attract and retain younger staff members, Murphy said, but also to work around an idiosyncrasy of the association world.

Among different workplaces, associations are No. 14 in the maturity of their workforce, with an average age of 48.6, Murphy said, and this can make it a challenge to stay current with younger members and keep an eye on who’s coming up next.

It’s even worth considering whether the bar building itself looks old and stuffy, and if there are ways to freshen it up, Murphy said. For example, BASF’s lease prohibits painting the walls in its conference center, but it has found another way to escape the white blandness: Local artists display their work there, and sell it, on a rotating basis.

A few more ideas

Murphy shared a few more ideas that might help her bar and others connect with younger lawyers. These included:

  • creating “under 35” and “over 35” task forces, with a specific assignment and time frame—or bringing the two age groups together to address a concern they have in common;
  • combining CLE with activism by building a volunteering or pro bono opportunity into the program; and
  • testing new sections that align with recent trends. One example from her bar, she noted, is a section to launch in 2016, around the hot topic of cybersecurity.