Vol. 40, No. 2

Welcome! How to connect, include, and engage new members

by Marilyn Cavicchia

How should your bar association welcome new members? As soon as possible.

That was one key point that emerged during a panel discussion at the 2015 NABE Communications Section Workshop in Orlando this fall. Others included more connection, more targeted information—and, yes, less paper.

Sharing their ideas on how to welcome and engage new members were: Dominick Alcid, marketing manager at the District of Columbia Bar; Lowell Brown, communications director at the State Bar of Texas; and Kallie Donahoe, director of the Barristers Club at The Bar Association of San Francisco. The panel was moderated by Patricia A. Yevics, director of law office management assistance at the Maryland State Bar Association.

Connect quicker

In January and February of this year, the D.C. Bar conducted an environmental scan as part of a project it called D.C. Bar 2020. One overall goal, Alcid said, was to move from “What should the D.C. Bar do?” to “What do our members need?”

One key finding that emerged when the unified bar looked at how it welcomed its new members, Alcid said, was that the 12 to 18 months that it took to become a full member was much too long of a transition period. By working with the court, the bar was able to streamline some processes and cut the wait time down to three months, Alcid said.

Another response, and one that may be heard by a lot of other mandatory bars was, as Alcid paraphrased it, “I don’t know anything about your bar—I just know that I have to join it.”

In addition to making information and assistance much easier to find online, the D.C. Bar added a mandatory introduction course with five CLE credits, including three in ethics. Judges are among the presenters, and they take their job of welcoming and orienting new members very seriously.

Similarly, Texas has a three-month gap between the time someone passes the bar exam and the time he or she becomes a lawyer. Thanks to a presidential initiative in 2009, Brown said, the unified State Bar of Texas reaches out even before that period starts, with a letter from the president to congratulate all new law grads on having reached that milestone and taken the bar exam.

As in a lot of states, the induction ceremony for new lawyers offers an opportunity for inductees to get to know the state bar and what it offers. To maintain the connection and further encourage membership, the bar follows up with another letter three months after induction. Because “not everyone reads their mail,” Brown said, the letter is also posted on the bar website.

Less paper, more targeted communications

Something else that the D.C. Bar heard often when conducting its research was “I don’t want all this paper,” Alcid recalled.

Rather than targeting the bar magazine to be scaled back or made exclusively digital, Alcid said the D.C. Bar looked at other ways to reduce paper. For example, a new member kit that used to be mailed is now online, including a greeting from the bar president and a lot of links to direct the new member to the information he or she needs. A much simpler mailed piece includes QR codes that direct to the mobile website.

Anecdotally, Alcid believes more people have clicked on the new member information online than used to read it when it was mailed.

Whether on paper or by any other means, Alcid said there are no more “blanket messages” that go to all members; instead, the bar thinks carefully about which membership segments should receive which types of information. For example, information recently went to members under 30, who tend to be tech savvy, regarding the bar’s newly expanded Fastcase benefit.

Be social on social media

“Social media is important to building trust with new members,” Brown said. “That’s more true every year.”

One thing Brown loves about this communication tool is its immediacy; it’s very simple and powerful, he said, to stay on top of bar exam dates and post good luck messages, congratulations once the bar passage list is published, and another round of good wishes once new lawyers are inducted.

Scheduling those posts can save considerable time, but Brown advised still devoting a couple of hours on those especially important days to keeping up with social media as it happens and responding as people reply or retweet. Use keyword searches, he added, to see who in your jurisdiction is talking about the bar exam or being inducted, and reach out to those people.

A note of congratulations to an individual exam taker, exam passer, or new inductee will almost always get a retweet or a thank-you reply, Brown said.

The State Bar of Texas is active on the following social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and—most recently—Pinterest. That new addition sparked a powerful interaction that Brown showed to the board to help justify the bar’s being active on social media: A new member tweeted that she’d been impressed when the bar congratulated her via Twitter, and that its new Pinterest account had really sealed the deal.

Mentoring and networking

But as social as social media can be, it’s important to also engage new members, including young lawyers, in person.

A very popular event for the Barristers Club, Donahoe said, is a party in January that “gets kind of wild” and that features board members and section chairs—but no sponsors. The goal of the party, she explained, is to help new lawyers connect with the bar association, without anyone trying to pitch goods and services to them.

Another well-attended event, Donahoe said, is an open house featuring different sections at tables—almost like a job fair for prospective new section members.

There’s also an informal get-together where judges and new lawyers can get to know each other, with very few managing partners in the room to make the new lawyers feel more on edge. Donahoe noted that this is far from a one-sided interaction; judges look forward to the chance to “really engage with the new members in a casual setting.”

Though The Bar Association of San Francisco has no annual meeting, its Barristers Club does; 115 members attended the most recent one. The right length for this event has taken some figuring, Donanoe said. It had lasted multiple days in the past, and then got pared down to a half day. Currently, the meeting is a full day—on a Friday because that’s generally best for young lawyers.  

The D.C. Bar, too, has found that new members often crave in-person connection and assistance. In response to that feedback, Alcid said, the bar has expanded its practice management assistance offerings to focus on “basic training” for new lawyers. The bar has had success, he said, with lunch-and-learn events during which section representatives and practice management assistants help new lawyers with the ins and outs of how to appear in court.

Ask for feedback—and then act on it

Key to engaging new members more effectively, Alcid said, has been not only ascertaining what they want and need, but also being willing to make the changes that are necessary to get them those things.

“Act on the feedback you get,” Alcid advised, noting that at the D.C. Bar, “it’s no longer about the organization pushing things out. It’s about giving the members what they need.”

Yevics agreed that, whether for new members or any other type of members, thinking in terms of segments rather than mass messaging or one-size-fits-all programs and services is the way to go. “If you have the data,” she advised, “use it.”