Don't Call Saul! Actively Participate in a Bar Association Instead

By Kenneth E. Sharperson
Membership in the bar is a privilege burdened with conditions.

—Benjamin N. Cardozo

In re Rouss, 221 N.Y. 81, 84 (1917)

Like many lawyers, I enjoy watching how Hollywood depicts the practice and business of law. One show in particular focuses on the struggles of a sole practitioner. Better Call Saul has many lessons for a solo or small firm lawyer on how not to build a successful law practice.

Set in 2002, the show follows the story of small-time lawyer James Morgan “Jimmy” McGill. While struggling to build his criminal law practice, he ends up cutting ethical corners and eventually is hired to help drug dealer Walter White launder the proceeds of his methamphetamine production. When Walter White seeks a buyer for his high-quality meth, McGill, now calling himself Saul Goodman, puts him in contact with drug kingpin Gus Fring, who buys a million dollars’ worth of meth. The “criminal lawyer” eventually becomes the “criminal,” albeit a financial success.

For the majority of law-abiding lawyers, representing a meth dealer and brokering million-dollar drug deals is not an option. The better route for a solo looking to build a successful practice is through service to bar associations.

Networking, Business Development, and Mentorship

A bar association is a synergistic group where a collection of people can accomplish so much more than one person could alone. Becoming a part of a synergistic group will help further your development as a lawyer in the areas of professional service, community achievement, and most importantly, business development. While you alone may be able to accomplish a great deal in your practice and likely do on a daily basis, joining a bar association allows you to tap into a legal resource pool and coalition of alliances that you may not have ever dreamed possible.

As a solo, creating professional relationships is crucial. Bar associations sponsor numerous social and educational events throughout the year that allow you to connect with the other attorneys in your community. Further, because most bar associations have midyear and annual meetings, you will have the opportunity to actively participate as a subject-matter expert and to learn about breaking news in your career, learn “best practices” or new ideas used by other lawyers, hear about key achievers in the legal profession, gain access to expert witnesses in your practice area, and meet and brainstorm with other small firm and sole practitioners who are also looking to share and learn new information that can help you develop your practice.

If you are just embarking on your career or putting up your own shingle, active participation in a bar association can provide a network of peers and mentors that will prove invaluable to your professional growth and development as an attorneys and can lead to a larger referral base. Some bar associations even have mentorship programs and will partner you with a seasoned lawyer in your local community. For sole practitioners, these mentorship programs can provide a road map into and through the profession—benefits that may not be readily available to attorneys who are not active in the bar association. And as you obtain professional success, you may be in a position to become a mentor to someone else in the association. Paying it forward and giving back can be the greatest reward and benefit of active bar association participation.

Participating in bar associations’ online forums, chat groups, and discussion boards is another a great way to grow your network and build your practice. Responding to a post or running a nuanced legal theory by other similarly situated lawyers may lead to referrals from lawyers who lack expertise in an area of law in which you practice. Most bar associations also provide access to vast resources of information in the form of journals, magazines, and newsletters as part of the membership package.

Leadership Opportunities

When you join the bar, do not just show up to events and meetings. Get active and volunteer. While attending the monthly meeting of a section/committee is incredible for face time, you may also develop a reputation as an observer rather than a leader. To really enjoy the benefits of membership, you must get to know people and showcase your own abilities. The best way to do this is by serving on a committee, volunteering for an event, or becoming a board member. These volunteer activities build long-lasting relationships and potential business opportunities. Further, you will enhance your credibility by listing your bar association membership on your firm résumé, which is impressive to clients and quite possibly current or future employers as it shows that you are dedicated to staying connected in the legal profession.

In addition, most bar associations provide attorneys with access to leadership roles at an early stage in their careers. Young lawyers divisions (YLDs) and related initiatives target attorneys with five to ten years of practice, offering activities that help foster networking opportunities, training, and development. One such example is the development at many state bars of leadership academies, which host monthly professional development panels on the practice of law for a select group of attorneys deemed to be future leaders of the association. YLD initiatives exist across many bar associations and provide a convenient springboard for assembling young attorneys, including sole practitioners, to share ideas and foster new connections.

Advocacy projects offer additional leadership opportunities. Many bar associations also have committees and task force initiatives seeking to improve both the legal profession and society as a whole. Bar association membership will allow you to be on the forefront of issues such as voter protection, the underfunded state and federal judiciaries, immigration reform, criminal justice, and education. While this work may not affect your bottom line, it is rewarding.

The Costs of Membership

Although there are significant benefits to becoming actively involved in the work of the bar association, bar associations can be very time consuming. The heavy workload demanded of lawyers launching a new solo practice is an obvious impediment to active bar participation. Eventually, however, you will come up for air and realize that you need additional professional contacts to help develop your career (for example, if your interactions have solely been in a litigation setting). Active bar participation guarantees that you meet attorneys from other practice areas as you work together to plan many social, educational, and community service events. Indeed, the more active a role you take and the more you invest of yourself, the more you will get out of bar association participation, despite the time commitment.

There are additional obstacles that a solo must also consider. Sole practitioners face the obstacle of the financial costs—the price of membership and fees to participate in meetings and CLEs. Some law firms pay for their employees’ memberships to bar associations, which leads to a certain type of attorney being able to actively participate in the bar association. As a solo, you don’t have this luxury. Nevertheless, you will see a return on your investment. Indeed, as an active bar association member, you will have opportunities for public speaking and to hold leadership positions. Thus, as you acquire skills and obtain experiences, you will be creating your brand and also increasing your opportunities to build your client base.

Part of the financial costs of joining a bar association can also be offset by the bundles of meaningful discounts commonly offered as member benefits. You may find the price of your annual dues returned to you by a single one of these benefits—for instance, a monthly discount on your cell phone bill. You also may be eligible for a group health plan through the bar association, as members share the cost of medical insurance in much the same way that employees of a business do.

In addition, bar associations work to support the needs of lawyers and provide support by advocating for lawyers in the legislature and otherwise. As advocates, the bar association works to promote the legal profession and influence legislation that affects the practice of law. The benefit of this advocacy means that members of bar associations have someone looking out for them and the industry as a whole. And, particularly important for lawyers in our practice setting, bar associations help to amplify the voices of solos within the legal profession.

Last Word: Take the Time

Through active participation in a bar association, you gain access to resources and benefits such as:

  1. a peer community you can turn to for guidance to assist your practice;
  2. like-minded colleagues;
  3. the ability to remain informed about the latest legal developments;
  4. continuing legal education;
  5. important business connections;
  6. promotion of your practice through the bar association’s directory; and
  7. advocacy for legislative changes that affect the practice of law.

Becoming involved in a bar association is about developing meaningful relationships from which you will learn and hopefully grow your firm or business. This means a commitment of personal time and, oftentimes, resources in terms of membership fees or fundraising. In order to maximize the benefits of bar association participation, you must develop a plan such as the following:

  1. join a bar association and pay your dues;
  2. consistently attend monthly meetings and speak to the other members of the sections/committees;
  3. volunteer to lead a subcommittee and plan an event; and
  4. demand a leadership position.

Taking Saul’s route from criminal lawyer to criminal might make for good television, but the safer and best way to grow your law practice is through taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by consistent and active involvement in a bar association.

Kenneth E. Sharperson is an attorney in the New Jersey office of Weber Gallagher, concentrating on the defense of national insurance carriers and corporate clients in insurance coverage disputes. He is a graduate of the ABA Tort, Trial & Insurance Practice Section Leadership Academy and served as a vice chair of the TIPS Ethics Committee and Public Relations Committee. In 2009 he was selected as one of the New Jersey Law Journal’s “Top 40 under 40” and was recognized as a New Jersey Super Lawyers Rising Star in 2012.