Vol. 39, No. 4

NABE panel shares tips for understanding, reaching out to new lawyers

by Marilyn Cavicchia

As a lot of other bar associations probably were, the Ohio State Bar Association was “humbled” by what has happened to the economy, the legal profession, and bar membership in the years since the 2008 recession.

That, and the realization that in five years, the majority of the workforce will be made up of Millennials and the next generation down—now called “Generation Z”—prompted the OSBA to undertake a major research project to discover what today and tomorrow’s young lawyers want and expect from the bar.

On hand at the 2015 Midyear Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives to share some of the key findings was Rick Bannister, the bar’s assistant executive director of member services, development, policy, public affairs and outreach.

Sharing their observations as young lawyers and/or stakeholders with an interest in the future of the profession were: Dana M. Hrelic, Hartford, Conn., a partner in Horton Shields & Knox PC, and a member of the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services; Vincent D. Humphrey, Bellevue, Wash., an attorney in a Keller Williams Commercial Division; and Susan Oehl, Houston, an attorney at Jenkins & Kamin LLP.

'The bar needs to be approachable'

When the OSBA decided to do a major market research project to uncover what could prompt lawyers of the Millennial generation (those who are now 34 and younger, roughly), it hired an outside company to do the first phase of research and then followed up with a couple of focus groups.

The main finding, Bannister said, was that in all ways, “the bar needs to be approachable.” Young lawyers said they were seeking practical, how-to information on how to run a law practice or practice law within a firm, how to manage their debt—and how to achieve work-life balance while doing all of that.

One real generational divide, Bannister said, is that while previous generations might view work-life balance as a perk or something to be earned after years of nonstop work, “this question is nonnegotiable for Millennials.”

Millennials also want—and even demand—to be able to customize their membership experience, such as by selecting how much and what type of information they want to receive, how frequently, and in what way. One consistent message, Bannister said, was "'Give me exactly what I want in my email.'” After all, he noted, thanks to online commerce and other factors, “this generation has grown up customizing all day long.”

Information must also be readily available whenever a young lawyer needs it, Bannister said, noting that many work on a schedule that is completely different from the standard 9-to-5 of the bar association.

But it’s not all about technology, Bannister said; in fact, one finding that might bear further study is that young lawyers said they did not wish to connect with the bar via social media.

What they did want, he said, was informal mentoring relationships based on connection and “two-way partnership” with someone approachable—rather than a more formal match-up in which an older lawyer dispenses wisdom to a younger one, with no reciprocation.

Another nonnegotiable, Bannister said, is that the Millennial generation wants and expects their bar association to help them get involved in “social reform” and charitable activity.

How do you make the connection?

Humphrey shared an anecdote that illustrates the kind of confidence that is typical of many Millennials. He was riding the shuttle from the airport with a few strangers who were also coming to the NABE meeting—among them, Dwight Dinkla, executive director of the Iowa State Bar Association. When the conversation turned to how bar associations can attract new lawyers, Humphrey “butted in,” he recalled.

He told his fellow passengers something that was also discovered in the OSBA’s research: that the bar needs to be much more approachable and offer a real connection. “Who is the face of the bar?” Humphrey asked, noting that he wants to see and be able to identify “who the bar association is.”

What can help accomplish that? Humphrey pointed to a Washington State Bar Association event called Open Sections Night, in which new lawyers meet with representatives from different sections of the bar to put names with faces and see whether they’d like to join any sections.

Humphrey, who is chair of the Washington Young Lawyers Committee, said that about 20 minutes before he spoke at Midyear, the committee posted a video from the event, and it was already getting positive feedback.

‘The here and now’

Hrelic noted that “We live in an information age of the here and now” and are faced with constant demands from judges, partners, clients, and others. Those time pressures and extraordinary economic pressures—not selfishness—are why her generation often comes across as demanding, she said.

Ever since the economic downturn and the ongoing changes in the profession, she explained, “The decisions that young lawyers are making, that new lawyers are making, are much more intentional than they used to be.”

That’s why, she added, it’s no longer acceptable for a bar association to “just string me along” regarding how joining or attending an event can help her a few months from now—she needs to know right away whether this investment of her time and money will benefit her right away.

Many law students graduate with $100,000 in debt, Oehl pointed out (which Humphrey later equated to “a mini-mortgage on their shoulders”); this makes it difficult when a bar association comes and asks them to pay dues. One thing that helps, she said, is if the bar association has an ongoing, strong presence at the local law schools—something that she said the Houston Bar Association does well.

Humphrey, Hrelic, and Oehl all suggested that the OSBA revisit and refine the research finding that seems to suggest that new lawyers don’t wish to connect with the bar on social media. In fact, they said, this is a powerful way to reach them, and a place where they expect the bar association to maintain an active presence.

Humphrey believes that even the oft-repeated observation that Millennials are not “joiners” is “disingenuous,” given how much time they spend in self-formed communities such as Facebook groups, where they share information, connection, and memes (often, these are photos with funny messages on them).

“If they’re choosing not to share with your bar association,” he stressed, “frankly, you need to ask why.”

More collaboration, less hierarchy

“We have to find a way to flatten out and provide less hierarchy,” Bannister said; the other panelists agreed and noted that a key way to do this is to break down age barriers and find what Oehl called “common ground and gray area between ages.”

Before that can happen, several panelists said, older members of the bar must confront some of the stigmas and assumptions they have toward Millennials and learn more about some of the economic and cultural factors that have shaped those younger lawyers.

From this nonjudgmental standpoint, the panelists said, the bar can begin to build ways for members of all generations to work together, so it’s “less ‘us vs. them,’ and more ‘just us,’” as Hrelic said.

One way to do this, Oehl suggested, is to establish subcommittees so that lawyers from multiple generations can work together toward a shared goal. If, say, a new lawyer and a senior lawyer at “a huge firm” work together on a project, this can spark “organic interactions” that are different from what might occur in a formal mentoring program.

“Young lawyers love being recognized for the ways they can give,” Hrelic agreed, adding that there’s another change in attitude that must occur if the bar is to move forward. Don’t think of generational change as young lawyers coming in to replace senior lawyers, she suggested; rather, it’s important to have “both perspectives sitting at the table” and learning from each other.

What happens next?

With 62 percent of membership organizations—such as bar associations—either losing ground or stagnating, it’s important to move from research to action, Bannister said.

At the OSBA, some follow-up research revealed that these words particularly resonate with Millennials:

  • exclusive;
  • inclusion;
  • online;
  • open;
  • inviting; and
  • engaging.

Based on that, the bar decided to “change our messaging” to highlight inclusion, approachability, and connection in everything that it offers. “We are all in on this in Ohio,” Bannister said, noting that the new tagline on the OSBA website and elsewhere is "Connect. Advance. Succeed."

As for reaching potential future members while they’re still in law school, the OSBA launched Ohiolawstudents.com the week after Midyear; its purpose is to aggregate and organize content that will be of immediate use to law students and new JDs in Ohio, Bannister said.

While the site does carry the bar's logo and make clear how law students can access its helpful resources, he added, the OSBA made a conscious decision to keep its presence a bit understated and to focus on the information that law students need. That’s one reason, he explained, that the website stands on its own rather than using the ohiobar.org URL.

Also the week after Midyear, the WSBA planned to have a generative discussion (one in which the purpose is to bring forward and discuss new ideas) involving the bar’s board and the Washington Young Lawyers Committee, as well as some members who do not usually participate in bar activities. “It’s good to have diversity of opinions,” Humphrey said, and not just from the unified bar’s most involved members.

Whatever approach a bar association decides to take, Humphrey stressed, with one huge generation approaching retirement and another trying to find a toehold in the profession, it’s important that no bar association deny or ignore the coming changes.

“If we continue with the status quo,” Humphrey asked, “what will that look like five years out—or sooner?”