Vol. 41, No. 1

Building the bridge to law students: Will they choose your bar association?

Today’s law students are bombarded with more choices than ever, and must decide where and how to spend their time, energy, and money to get the most “bang for their buck.”

What school extracurriculars, externships, or courses will help them stand out from the pack in their employment search? In the stacks of applications, law students have to separate themselves to get those coveted positions. Adding bar associations—local, state, national, and affinity—into the mix complicates matters significantly for law students.

How does a first-year student choose? A national bar? One that caters to their state or county? Or maybe even one that focuses on the area of law they're interested in? Students think of bar associations as the purview of gray-haired attorneys and expensive CLEs, and wonder how joining any such association can benefit them.

During our tenure as officers in the American Bar Association’s Law Student Division, we attempted to learn from the law student perspective to make ABA and other bar association programs as accessible as possible to eager law students. Using our experience from those two years, we’ve flipped the tables to give you some insight on how you can make sure your association is appealing to the lawyers of tomorrow.

Tip #1: Get financial buy-in from law students, but recognize that they’re not a revenue source, and you WILL likely lose money on them in the short term. Have no fear: If you are successful, they will be members for years to come.

Law students have ingenuity and are eager to attend CLEs or conferences. These opportunities allow law students to make key connections or learn about an area of law to potentially practice in. If you host a program at their school or in their region, students want to attend.

But law school is expensive, and living expenses while in school rack up; law students do not have the financial capacity to spend $150 or more on two or three programs a semester. Bar associations should consider reduced rates for students at their programming events.

Conversely, students who are juggling multiple things are also quick to dismiss a bar program they didn’t have to pay for. There is a lack of accountability from students who have not paid for a program. It is important for bar associations to find that ever-elusive middle ground.

The sweet spot? Charge between $10 and $20 for an individual conference or program. This is just a guideline; if the program runs multiple days or is very expensive for attendees, be flexible. Perhaps consider letting students set up, work the registration tables, assist speakers, and clean up in exchange for free admission.

We have even seen students as “note takers” who post on social media throughout the program to broadcast the unique happenings of the event. It is a way for both the association and the student to enjoy the program and to promote it at the same time. Either way, look for an affordable, feasible fee for students to take ownership in attending your program.

Tip #2: Come to law students in informal, no-pressure settings.

Law students are always looking for two things: free food and a good professional connection. Today’s students value networking but want to do this in a less formal setting—especially if it involves grabbing a bite. “Networking nights,” as have been more traditionally facilitated by schools or bars, where students are required to work a room and exchange business cards, are not always successful because they do not give the law students the fruitful relationships they are seeking. To be honest, students—us included—may not follow up on many of those artificial relationships after they leave the event.

How can you overcome that forced nature? Bars should consider hosting pizza, cocktail, or coffee events on law school campuses to facilitate informal networking with local attorneys. Even though students will show in ties and suits, having a somewhat informal, round-robin style networking event with casual food will take pressure off students to impress or to be formal in their mannerisms.

Tip #3: Upgrade students from ‘the kids table.’

Similar to generating financial buy-in through a modest fee, bar associations can and should create areas of responsibility for law students—something that many are currently lacking. Law students are organized and eager to dive in, and can be an asset to your bar.

Consider creating a law student task force, with a focus on how best to recruit other law students or to help coordinate panels of more senior bar attorneys at their schools. The task forces should include members of each level of the legal community and likely will be successful if they are made up of law students, young lawyers, a member of the association who focuses on membership, and practicing attorneys as well.

In the same vein, when your bar creates general or special committees or task forces, consider saving a seat at the table for a law student. They will give you fresh blood and help shape the association’s priorities for the future.

Remember: Law students are soon-to-be attorneys who are looking for a home in an association. Make sure it is yours.

Law students become new lawyers who want to find permanent homes for referrals, job opportunities, CLEs, and overall growth as a practicing attorney. That’s why it is important for associations to focus on tips like the ones outlined above to make sure that law students are recruited early and remain with the bar association throughout their entire career. Cater to your members, but constantly recruit law students—the future of the legal profession.