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Vol. 44, No. 2

Engaged, not entitled: Young lawyers share what they want from bar membership

By Marilyn Cavicchia

A panel of young lawyers at the 2019 NABE Communications Section Workshop offered what may be sobering insights for those working to persuade this age group to join the bar. 

Many young lawyers think “bars are stuffy, and we don’t want to spend time there,” according to Keith Dye, director of student services and career development at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Added Emily Kelchen, founder and CEO of Kelchen Consulting, “Everybody thinks it’s all old guys.”

What about networking as a key strength for bars, and a way to draw new lawyers in? Unless it has very specific and clearly stated goals, a networking event is often “a waste of time,” said Ruchi Asher, assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.

Kelchen echoed Asher and recommended that bars scale back their focus on business development because “bars are bad at it.” And many young lawyers, like these three panelists, are not rainmakers at their firm or don’t work at a firm at all.

The good news? The panelists highlighted something that is a real strength for bars, and only a small step away from networking: connection, and meaningful engagement with peers (whether in terms of age or other commonalities).

“It’s about finding your people,” said Kelchen, who is a very involved member of both the State Bar of Wisconsin (which offers admission via diploma privilege) and the New Jersey State Bar Association, “not necessarily finding a new client.”

Don’t over-rely on free memberships

“It’s not really a gift,” said Asher, referring to free memberships for new lawyers, “unless the person uses it.”

Dye recalled that as a law student, he had free memberships to both the Akron Bar Association and the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, but that he didn’t do anything with either one. “Someone told you about it [as a law student],” he said, “but you didn’t know what it meant.”

Asher noted that because of the demands of being a law student or new lawyer, it’s important to bring programming right to those prospective young members. She did not make use of her free membership in the Ohio State Bar Association, she said, because “I’m not going to Columbus for anything.”

For law students, she added, even being in the same city isn’t enough; for example, a law student at Case Western would most likely not come to an event at the CMBA headquarters in downtown Cleveland.

‘I don’t want to touch a piece of paper’

Whatever the location of the event, the panelists agreed that if you want new lawyers to attend, registration has to be easy.

“I don’t want to touch a piece of paper, ever,” Kelchen said; not only does she not want to have to print, fill out, and mail a form, she added, but she also doesn’t want to make a phone call.

Asher noted that even online registration can be cumbersome, if it requires setting up an account and login information just to use a registration portal. “For one event, it’s too much work,” she said, adding that sometimes she’ll show up at an event, not having registered, because it’s easier to receive and pay an invoice later than it is to sign up in advance.

In all your communications about the event, Kelchen said, be absolutely clear about what attendees can expect to receive (training in a particular area, hearing from a specific speaker) in exchange for their registration fee and their time. Also be clear, she added, about what will occur at what times, and when the event will end.

Increased clarity could also be helpful if bars do want to help new lawyers with business development, Asher suggested; perhaps an event could focus on teaching one specific skill or set of skills along those lines.

At networking events, Kelchen appreciates when there’s some other focus besides “just drinking at a bar.” For one thing, she noted, not everyone drinks, so the assumption that alcohol needs to be prominently featured at every bar event can be a turnoff to many. Also, she said, having such an event at an interesting location, such as an art museum, can help break the ice by providing attendees with easy ways to start a conversation—rather than immediately talking about themselves and each other.

Asher noted, too, that many lawyers could benefit from a business development refresher at midcareer, and that this is an area where a lot of bars have gaps.

Keep the ‘social’ in social media

Though the specific platforms they use vary, the panelists agreed that social media―not email―is a great way to reach law students and new lawyers.

Kelchen discouraged bars from using social media as a “megaphone” through which to shout one-sided messages. “You’re supposed to engage,” she said. “If you want to be our friend, act like it.”

The State Bar of Wisconsin does an especially good job with Twitter, she said, noting that the key is that there’s clearly a person watching the conversation and looking for ways to engage in real time, and to help spark connections between members as opportunities arise.

Many bars like to copy and paste a tweet and use the abbreviation RT, so they can then include their own thoughts, but Kelchen said this is a bit unneighborly; instead, she explained, using the retweet button will ensure that the original person is part of all subsequent interactions, and can track them.

Dye doesn’t care much for video on social media, but if you do use it, Asher suggested, include captions on the video or full text below, so it can be watched in settings where the sound is not welcome.

Questions are great conversation starters, Kelchen said, as are photos. Asher noted that she loves to see photos of her friends—as long as they’re flattering, and not taken at an event where the person has a mouthful of food.

Recruit members and leaders to engage

If you have preregistration data for an event, Asher suggested, make good use of it by identifying new members to your current ones and encouraging them to reach out and be welcoming.

It’s even more important, Dye said, that leaders be instructed to greet new lawyers. “The president greeting them and remembering their name—it makes a difference,” he believes. “They remember that.”

Not all members and leaders find that greeting new members comes naturally, Kelchen said, but bar staff should say in no uncertain terms, “This is part of leadership.”  

Involvement, not entitlement

More than CLE, business development help, free membership, or any other “stuff,” the panelists said what they most want from a bar is to be asked to participate fully.

“Asking us makes us feel valued,” Kelchen agreed, noting that the desire to be asked for their thoughts is often “translated inappropriately as feeling entitled.”

Asher praised the CMBA for reaching out to new lawyers in a number of ways, such as by calling them to ask how they would like to get involved and to help connect them with projects of interest, and by collecting viewpoints from members (including young lawyers) regarding plans for the Cuyahoga County Justice Center. (For more about this matter and the bar's role, please see Bar Leader Weekly, issue 179.)

“If you get somebody involved,” Asher said, “they’ll see the value of membership.”

Kelchen agreed and noted that by the time her employer stopped paying for her bar membership (before she opened her consulting firm), she was “in too deep” and continued paying her dues in order to stay involved and maintain the many connections she had made.

As a way to help new lawyers bridge from involvement to leadership, Kelchen, who is chair-elect of the New Jersey State Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, said the YLD plans to bring someone in to discuss how to be a board member. “They don’t teach you Robert’s Rules in law school,” she noted.

Resisting the “entitled” stereotype and pointing out what a wise long-term investment it is to reach out to new lawyers in the way that is most meaningful to them, Asher said, “It’s good for the longevity of the profession to draw them into decision making.”