Vol. 37, No. 6

New generation, new legal profession: Is your bar association ready?

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Bar associations’ future relevance depends on how well they understand, adapt to—and even embrace—some of the changes that are currently affecting the legal profession. That was the message from Deborah Epstein Henry and Marta-Ann Schnabel to attendees at the 2013 ABA Bar Leadership Institute.

Henry, founder and president of Law & Reorder, a division of Flex-Time Lawyers LLC, and co-founder and managing director of Bliss Lawyers, believes the legal profession is becoming more global, more competitive, and more budget-focused. (See “What the future legal market means for lawyers and bar associations,” also in this issue, for more information about these changes.)

And Generation Y (definitions vary, but they are generally thought to now be in their mid-30s and younger) is “the largest demographic group ever,” with 80 million people, Henry said. While the current career prospects and debt crisis are dissuading many on the younger end from becoming lawyers, the fact remains, she noted, that “these are our future leaders.”

Schnabel, a past president of both the Louisiana State Bar Association and New Orleans Bar Association and a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, helped attendees see how the information about these changes was important to them and how it could be used to keep their bar associations—and members—vital.

Enhanced mentoring programs

Both Henry and Schnabel had suggestions for how to adapt and enhance existing mentoring programs to help new lawyers enter the changing legal profession. Mentoring should focus not just on professionalism and networking, Schnabel believes, but should also include detailed guidance regarding how to run a practice.

If a bar association tries to ensure that new lawyers can practice successfully, she explained, “You will be establishing and sustaining members who can afford to be part of your organization.”       

Henry recommended that bar associations do programming on how to find or be a sponsor—a “power broker” who will use influence to advance a younger lawyer’s career. Sponsorship is like “ramped-up mentoring,” she explained; rather than a randomly assigned mentee, the protégé is someone the sponsor believes to be a “potential star” and is willing to personally advocate for.                 

It was likely that some potential sponsors were in the room at BLI, Schnabel noted. “You have it within your capacity, as do board members and committee chairs, to take on that role,” she said.

Intensive skill training

Henry took the idea a step beyond mentoring and sponsorship, and suggested that bar associations could help fill the much-discussed gap in core competency training for young lawyers, now that large law firms are less able to spend time on it—and now that many new law grads go straight into solo practice.

A bar association could become an approved trainer through the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, she said, and would then provide supplemental, outsourced training, with partial funding from law firms.

Schnabel suggested partnering with law schools in the bar’s area and with the state supreme court, given that this idea could involve “major changes” in the role of the bar association.

Working to close the training gap in a more comprehensive, in-depth way than many bars have done in the past “ought to top the list of what we’re thinking about when we’re thinking about the future,” Schnabel said.

Helping “lost” members

Bar associations need to do a better job of assisting unemployed lawyers, solo and small firm lawyers, lawyers who are within the umbrella term diversity, those who have left practice in pursuit of work-life balance, and other “lost members,” Henry believes. At BLI, she addressed all of these but put particular focus on work-life balance.

Work-life balance has become a more gender-neutral concern, Henry said, adding that it’s also “reason neutral.” That is, more and more men are seeking a more balanced life, too—and regardless of gender, the reason often has nothing to do with children.

Recent surveys have shown that work-life balance is the No. 1 concern for both male and female law students, and eight out of 10 of them would be willing to trade money for time, Henry said.

Still, she noted, family responsibilities often fall more heavily on women lawyers than on men; according to data from MIT, Henry said, “When women have children, they are more likely to leave the profession, and when men have children, they’re more likely to stay.” At some point in their careers, she added, 31 percent of women lawyers leave the profession—and that doesn’t include maternity leave.

One way bar associations can help support those wishing to reenter the profession, Henry said, is by coordinating externships to help them make important connections with different practice settings and with potential mentors and sponsors.

Bar associations can help promote work-life balance, Henry suggested, by thinking carefully about the scheduling and location of bar events, and also by sponsoring awards for legal employers that do a particularly good job of supporting it. It’s not enough for a firm to offer part-time schedules, Henry said; most firms already do this, she noted, but only 6 percent of lawyers in firms work part-time. In other professions, she added, the usage rate for part-time options is around 14 percent.

How can a bar association encourage “lost” members—especially women, younger lawyers, and others who value work-life balance and feel pressed for time—to take on leadership roles? One solution, both Henry and Schnabel suggested, might be to split some leadership positions so two people can share them.

Social media now a necessity

Career and practice assistance, as discussed earlier, can be a great way to build relationships with young lawyers, Henry said. While in the past, there’s been a bit of a “taboo” around addressing the business aspects of the profession, she explained, many Gen Y lawyers would likely hesitate to get involved in an organization that has not offered any career help.

Henry also stressed that a bar association presence on social media is now a must, not a gimmick.

“If you hold events without putting them on Facebook,” she said, “you’re not going to be relevant to this younger generation.”

Schnabel agreed that while previous generations may have joined bar associations for somewhat vague reasons, such as “to become known in the community,” it is now essential to directly explain how a member will benefit—and to get that clear message out via Facebook, Twitter, and other means.

Don’t worry if results from your social media efforts are not immediate and dramatic, Schnabel advised. “If all that happens with younger lawyers is that they ‘like’ or ‘follow’ you,” she said, “you have a start.”

Is your bar association immune?

Given that, as Henry said, 70 percent of law firm partners are baby boomers, and that many of them have been phasing into retirement over the course of five or 10 years rather than all at once, it might be tempting to think that bar associations are still insulated from the changes affecting young lawyers and law students. But Schnabel cautioned against maintaining the status quo even if things seem stable now.

Regarding a wakeup moment when leaders must deal with economic and demographic changes in their legal community in order for the bar to stay relevant, Schnabel said, “If it hasn’t happened yet in your bar association, it will happen soon.”