Vol. 45, No. 4

Deep in debt, seeking meaningful involvement: Bars try new value propositions for young lawyers

By Robert J. Derocher

“Nobody,” says New York State Bar Association President Hank Greenberg, “is going to leave their law office to go to a state bar association pizza party,” dryly noting the disappearance of a decades-old socialization ritual for the Young Lawyers Section at the nation’s largest voluntary bar.

But in York County, Pa., “Young lawyer happy hours work for us,” says Victoria Connor, CEO of the 500-member York County Bar Association and the York County Bar Foundation. “We’re old school in many ways.”

What plays on Broadway might not play on Market Street—and vice versa—when it comes to bar programming and activities for young lawyers. But what does seem consistent is that mounting law school debt and other changes in the economy, the profession, and membership habits have raised the stakes when it comes to bars’ value propostion for young lawyers. Current estimates of the average law school debt load vary between $100,000 and $150,000—on top of whatever remains from student loans toward undergraduate studies. Adding to the problem for bars is that many big firms have long since quit automatically paying for bar memberships—and fledgling solo lawyers often find even a small membership fee (or, in integrated bar states, costs for any participation other than what is required) difficult to justify.

Over the last decade, many professional membership associations have struggled with a steady decline in younger members, combined with increased aging out of long-established members. With that reality no longer a blip, bars are increasingly arming themselves with statistics, analysis, conversation and technology in order to stay relevant—and afloat. From the seemingly simple to the somewhat complex, bars continue to look for solutions to the challenge of reaching younger lawyers. In many cases, this involves setting aside or reframing old notions (e.g., entitlement, instant gratification, and participation trophies) and helping young lawyers get more deeply and meaningfully involved with “the big bar.”  

More than just the ‘children’s table’

Saddled with huge law school debt, the need to work long hours (often to pay that debt), the economic fallout of a jarring recession, and a dubious view of Baby Boomer-laden, hierarchy-driven organizations, many young lawyers often don’t see value in a voluntary membership association or in more participation than is required (in states with integrated bars), says Sarah Sladek, a generational research and management consultant.

“They’re saying, ‘I have to see some value from this, because I feel anxious about the future, my career and my financial stability. So, I need to learn some valuable skills, create some valuable networks, and if I’m not given the opportunity to do that, I’ll feel even more lost at sea,’” she says.

For many younger lawyers, a bar leadership model that focuses on “paying your dues” and employs a stepped approach (secretary-treasurer-vice president-president) that skews toward older members discourages membership and participation, Sladek believes. “The idea of sitting on a board of directors for 10 years? Young people, they simply can’t fathom that,” she says. “Things move fast. That’s the world they’ve lived in.”

Andrew Schpak agrees. At 37, the Portland, Ore., attorney has already served as co-chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division, chair of the Multnomah (Ore.) Bar Association Young Lawyers Section, president of the Multnomah Bar Association, and currently, a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services.

“It’s about opportunities for involvement. What young lawyers are looking for are discrete opportunities to volunteer and to participate and deliver on items,” he says. “To engage and empower younger members is to make sure that there is something specific that they are tasked with accomplishing.”

Echoing Sladek’s generational observations, Schpak also worries that many bar associations are slow to recognize what younger members can bring to the larger bar after they have “graduated” from young lawyer sections, divisions or committees.

“Going from that level of involvement to all of a sudden, ‘You’re going to have to start from scratch,’ feels weird [for younger leaders],” he says. “There’s an opportunity there that’s not being fully embraced to transition these folks who have demonstrated an interest in volunteer bar involvement and service, and have perhaps even served as a leader.”

When Kevin Ryan became executive director of the 1,800-member Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association nearly four years ago, he wanted to make sure the bar’s Young Lawyers Section was “more than just the ‘children’s table.’” Since that time, the YLS has added members, increased its number of committees and broadened activities and events across the entire bar.

“We’ve just eliminated the traditional model,” Ryan says. “We have one of the youngest [bar] boards I think I’ve ever seen—multiple people that are under 40. We try to get them involved in general bar association activities very quickly.”

Meaningful involvement in the work of the bar

At the NYSBA, the Young Lawyers Section recently played a pivotal role in leading the bar’s efforts to push for removal of mental health questions from the character and fitness questionnaire for admission to practice law in the state (see “A new look at character and fitness: Bar leaders, lawyers, others urge elimination of mental health questions,” Bar Leader, January-February 2020). Citing studies that show that such questions deter law students and prospective bar applicants from seeking treatment for mental health issues, a bar task force prepared a report whose recommendations were approved by the bar’s house of delegates. The YLS was represented on that task force, marking the first time that the section has been called on to craft policy for the entire bar, Greenberg notes.

“We’re going to be doing more of that that kind of work, bringing the YLS into the deliberative process,” he says. “We’re creating positions and opportunities for them to make policy that’s relevant to their lives.”

“It really energized us, more so than I’ve seen in the past,” YLS Chair Lauren Sharkey says of the section’s work on the legislation. “We’re happy to see that it’s gotten to the Legislature. It’s great to see that effect.” (Note: Shortly before press time, New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced that mental health questions would be removed from the state bar application, effective immediately.)

That YLS involvement, Greenberg adds, is part of a growing focus on younger members, highlighted by a “digital transformation” that includes a new website that was rolled out in February 2020, increased live streaming of committee and board meetings, “an Amazon-like” interface, a bigger social media presence, and greater internal analytics capabilities.

“Our entire approach to communications has been dramatically changed and improved. Now, we have real-time posting of data to members, and we’re pushing out content in real time,” he says. “Understanding their reality means that we need to meet them where they live, not where we—as 50-something attorneys—live. And they live in digital places.”

Encouraging deeper connections

While technology updates and trend awareness are important for the York County bar, maintaining and expanding personal relationships—and helping ease jitters about walking into a bar event without knowing anyone—are also important for younger lawyers, Connor says. The bar recently reintroduced a dormant mentoring program that automatically pairs new admittees with at least one experienced bar member.

“The mentors bring the new admittee to at least one bar event and introduce them to people,” Connor says. “We really try to assimilate [young lawyers] into the association right away, and guide them through the various activities at the bar.”

And, recognizing that many young lawyers have growing families and long workdays, Connor says the bar regularly has events that encourage members to bring their families. That’s also something that the NYSBA’s YLS has embraced, according to Sharkey.

“My family came to our annual meeting and made it a vacation,” she says. “I think it’s important to show young lawyers that you can have a family and you can be a part of the bar.”

In a nod to the Millennial generation’s focus on health and wellness, the NYSBA’s YLS has also introduced a pilot program that gives members access to podcasts, chat groups, self-evaluations, and other materials focused on mental health. That concept grew out of surveys of young members that also led to the establishment of a YLS task force on student debt—a big source of stress for young lawyers, Sharkey says.

The value of listening—and empathy

Debt, health, mentoring, networking, substantive programming: It’s a multipronged approach for bar membership that makes sense to Schpak and others as they look to the future.

“People have very different reasons for joining bar associations now. Community service and pro bono?  Networking? CLE? It’s coming from the consumer,” Schpak says. “[Many bars] recognize that it’s not one-size-fits-all for the value proposition.”

Recognizing his own interests—and those of his peers—Schpak built on his YLS experiences while leading the Multnomah bar, he says, by carrying over a popular YLS public service committee to the full bar. “More and more,” he adds, “people are finding value in bar associations not from going to an event at a bar and having a drink with a couple folks, but from things like having an opportunity to do something like community service.”

And while surveys, program analytics and generational tracking can all play a part in developing attractive programs and services for younger members, Sladek adds, it also comes down to setting aside generational stereotypes and really listening to what young lawyers have to say about the realities they face.

“Associations need to be more empathetic. Unfortunately, I find that a lot of association leaders don’t even take the time to have dialogue with or really get to know—or survey or poll—their young, emerging professionals,” she says. “If they would listen to what is happening and how the market is shifting, it actually creates more value for everyone.”

Ryan credits that regular dialogue across the entire bar leadership and staff with younger members for the steady strength in bar membership in Monroe County. “We talk about value,” he says.

Adds Sharkey: “We’re all under a tremendous amount of pressure and we’re all at different stages of our lives and our careers. We need to address that by providing a variety of options, whether that be webinars, interview techniques, or a destination meeting where you can bring your entire family for a vacation—and also do work.

“It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all; it’s going to be, ‘We’re here for you, whatever stage you’re in.’”