Whether you are a law student, a new lawyer, or a seasoned lawyer, you may be asking yourself, “Should I become a member of [insert organization here] bar association?” It is never too late to join a bar association. However, joining later in your career or not joining at all may cause you to miss out.
Law students often ask me what organizations I am a member of. I tell them I am a member of the California Lawyers Association (CLA), San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA), San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association (SDLRLA), Lawyers Club of San Diego, San Diego Family Law Bar Association (SDFLBA), and Tom Homann LGBTQ+ Law Association (THLA). The next question, naturally, has often been, why be a member?
Some bar associations offer free membership to law students and/or new lawyers. As to those associations that offer free membership, my question to you is, why not join?!
You may want to join a bar association to show your support for its mission. For example, the mission of the American Bar Association (ABA) is to “serve equally our members, our profession and the public by defending liberty and delivering justice as the national representative of the legal profession.” The mission of the Lawyers Club of San Diego is to “advance the status of women in the law and society.” The mission of SDLRLA is to “advance the cause of equality, empowerment, and justice for Latino attorneys and the Latino community in San Diego County through service and advocacy.” The mission of THLA is the “advancement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer issues throughout California and the nation.” You get the idea.
Many bar associations put forth continuing legal education (CLE) seminars or offer a CLE library to its members for free or at a reduced rate. Except in a few jurisdictions, attorneys are required to complete ongoing legal training. For example, attorneys in California are required to complete 25 hours of mandatory CLE training every three years. These hours must include education in legal ethics, competence issues, and elimination of bias. Given this requirement, becoming a member of a bar association that offers CLE is of great importance to many.
Some bar associations offer insightful webinars and roundtables. These can include candid discussions on things such as mental health in the legal community, the importance of diversity, and the impact of laws or actions on our local community. They can also include updates from our local bench.
In addition to notifying members of updates from the bench, bar associations also offer opportunities for members to meet the bench at judicial mixers or dinners. This could be important for those with judicial aspirations or even those who wish to build rapport with a judicial officer they are likely to appear before.
That brings me to the social events available to members of bar associations. Throughout the year, bar associations offer networking events to members. Some also provide a directory of members. This helps members get connected and stay connected. A connection can lead to a mentor, a job, or even a referral source. These connections help members feel like they belong to a community. As I became more involved with bar associations, I quickly noticed that I kept seeing the same people at events. As friendships with other members grew, I felt a sense of belonging in a group of people who accepted me and understood me.
Most bar associations also provide their members the opportunity to write blogs, be highlighted in newsletters, and write articles. This is great for marketing, is an excellent way to give back by sharing your life experiences and knowledge, and can help add to your résumé for future endeavors.
Finally, bar associations offer a myriad of opportunities for members to volunteer in the community. For example, the Lawyers Club of San Diego’s Community Services Committee hosts a biannual Read-In at Central Elementary; the students in this school are among the most economically challenged in the district. Volunteers serve as role models and inspiration for students to dream big. SDLRLA co-hosts project L.E.A.D., which is a ten-week educational program focusing on inspiring fifth graders to make positive life choices. The SDCBA hosts an annual event involving school children in its Law Week celebration to generate excitement toward the justice system and provides volunteers to feed the homeless.
How Can I Take On a Leadership Role in a Bar Association?
I first took a leadership role in the SDCBA when I self-nominated for the vice chair position of its Family Law Section. After serving in that role, I became the chair and then member-at-large of the Family Law Section. That was when my service in leadership roles for bar associations took flight.
Personally, I was encouraged by others in the legal community to volunteer with their organizations and to run for their boards of directors. These were people I looked up to, and so I decided to listen to them. They saw something in me that, at the time, I did not see. I actually never thought of myself as a leader and still have trouble accepting the title.
If you are not “recruited,” that does not mean you should not seek to secure a leadership role in a bar association.
I recommend that you research the various leadership opportunities that bar associations offer and the processes by which to secure them. You will find that most of the leadership roles involve a nomination and an election.
Once you know what position you want to secure, I encourage you to reach out to someone who is either currently serving in a leadership role or someone who has served in a leadership role for the particular bar association you are interested in working with. This is so that you can get some insight into what the leadership position entails and how best to secure the position. If the organization holds an event or posts information or a video on how to apply or run for a position, I recommend you take the opportunity to attend or review the material. Like anything else, it is best to be overprepared than underprepared.
Bottom line, you can only get the chance to serve in a leadership role for a bar association if you take the first step and apply!
Be vigorous with your campaign when running for any leadership position. All the networking you have done as a member of bar associations will help in this process.
With this in mind, do not be discouraged if you run for a leadership role and do not secure it. This was my experience when I ran for a position on the Board of Directors of the SDCBA. I was not successful the first time I ran. Shortly after, a seat on the Board became available for a one-year term. I submitted my application, and the Board elected me to join them. Once my term was over, I ran again for a full term and was successful. If I had allowed myself to be discouraged when I was not elected to the Board the first time, I would have missed out on the opportunity to make meaningful connections and, with the help of the staff and other volunteers at the SDCBA, assist our members and make a positive impact in our community.
What’s in It for Me?
So, what many want to know is . . . what’s in it for me?
There are many benefits to volunteering in bar associations. Consider these as you contemplate volunteering your time, which is one of the most precious things we, as lawyers, have.
First, volunteering with bar associations exposes you to many people in the legal community. This could be of importance to someone who is new to the community, someone who is looking for connections to secure a job, someone who is looking for a mentor, or even someone who is working on a book of business.
Second, volunteering builds skills that are helpful in personal and professional ways. For me, volunteering in bar associations helped me become an extrovert. I often take a step back and remember the days when I feared public speaking and networking gave me anxiety. It also taught me how to work with others in a positive and effective manner, even if not everyone in the room agreed on a topic. Lastly, it taught me how to multitask and become more efficient.
Another benefit to active service in bar associations is that it will enhance your résumé. This is particularly important to those who have an eye on a future job prospect—for example, someone who aspires to serve on a city council, someone who wants to be an executive director of a bar association, or even someone who wants to apply to be a judge or commissioner.
I began volunteering with bar associations to have a say regarding the programming and events that the SDCBA put forth in its Family Law Section. From then on, I volunteered my time to organizations that stood for something that I was personally passionate about.
Throughout my leadership roles with different bar associations, I kept in mind the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” By this, I mean I have tried to lead in a positive manner and, along my journey, have offered my help to others so they, too, can lead, and I hope others will do so, too.
Where Did the Time Go?
Keep in mind that you need to be willing and able to dedicate time to the bar association where you want to assume a leadership position. Leadership positions in different organizations may involve different time commitments; however, they all will require your time and attention.
Speaking of timing, once you get to a position of leadership, there may be opportunities to serve in an executive position. For example, as a member of a board of directors, you could apply to become secretary, treasurer, or even president. If you are interested in serving in an executive position, keep in mind the timing and time commitments involved.
Do not spread yourself too thin. I have found that many of us who volunteer our time outside the practice of law have a tough time saying the word “no.” You know yourself best and should keep in mind what you have time for and what should really wait. As you dive into bar associations, I encourage you to continue to mark out time for yourself and the other things that matter to you. It’s all about balance!
Want to Dive Deeper?
There are many ways to get involved with your local or state government. For example, you can join a board or commission, you can run for office, or you can join a nonprofit organization.
Doing this gives you a deeper insight into the issues. It also gives you a voice in the decision-making process to make changes. And it is yet another way to give back to your community.
Getting involved with your local or state government can afford you the opportunity to do something that you are passionate about—and it can even help you find your passion.
Being actively involved in bar associations has helped me and my career. It has allowed me to build meaningful connections in our legal community. It has also allowed me to give back by volunteering in leadership positions, by serving the community through volunteer opportunities offered by the bar associations I am a member of, and by providing opportunities for me to mentor law students and new lawyers.
I recognize that being actively involved in bar associations and serving in positions of leadership may not be for everyone. However, do not rule it out before doing some research and giving it a try.