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GPSolo Magazine

GPSolo May/June 2023: Public Service: How Lawyers Can Help the Community

Confessions of 11 Lifelong Bar Association Enthusiasts

Melanie Bragg


  • By actively participating in bar associations, you’ll become a member of a community whose ties remain long after your initial service.
  • Service to the profession offers an opportunity to make the world a better place and help people with their life problems.
  • The people you will meet and relationships you establish by working with the bar will help you in every stage of your career.
Confessions of 11 Lifelong Bar Association Enthusiasts
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After 40 years of practicing law, I still believe that the law is the “world’s greatest profession.” I am excited about it, and it is an honor and a privilege to be a member of the bar. Along with the great responsibilities and stresses that come with the territory, there is an opportunity through service to the profession to make the world a better place and really help people with their life problems. The icing on the cake is the friendships with other lawyers. In a post-pandemic world where we hear the news of depression, anxiety, and loneliness causing so many to leave the law, the need for in-person connection in our careers is even that much greater.

Service to the legal profession is an important part of every lawyer’s life. While I know I have served the profession extensively over the years, I also know that I have gotten way more in return than I have given. The life experiences I have had and the lifelong friendships I have made with some of the most amazing people in the world have surpassed every dream I could think of on my own. Yet, I see some lawyers today who are so busy doing their “job” that they never make time to do any of the many service-to-the-profession activities that would enrich their lives and add value to their ability to help their clients. I do my best to invite them to join me and to show them that it is worthwhile to get involved. No matter how busy our world has gotten, we can still make time to serve the profession.

I cannot remember how I got the idea to apply to be a member of the State Bar of Texas Law Student Division, but I must have seen a notice. I was elected and began to serve. I decided to put on a law student job placement program at the annual State Bar of Texas Convention, and the folks who worked at the bar were a little taken aback when I said I was going to ask State Bar President Terry Scarborough to speak at our event. I was unfazed by their response, and guess what? He said yes! That summer program continued every year thereafter for 30 years and became what is known as the Texas Job Fair.

Because of that position in the Law Student Division, I was asked in my last year of law school to be the Law Student Division Representative on the Texas Young Lawyers Association Board of Directors. It was a life-changing experience for me, and I learned so much during that year and got really involved in the Houston Young Lawyers Association; by 1990 I became the first woman president of that group. I also got elected to the Texas Young Lawyers Association Board of Directors. I went to my first American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD) meeting in 1986, and I became a director of ABA YLD in 1990. We were doing diversity events before we called it diversity. We held the first-ever Minority Pre-Law Conference back in the 1980s in Houston.

Being active on the local, state, and national levels was fun for me. The work I started in my young lawyer years has continued, and I still work on the local, state, and national levels. I currently represent the Houston Bar Association on the ABA House of Delegates, I serve on the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program Committee of the State Bar of Texas (TLAP), and I am a past Chair of the ABA GPSolo Division (2018–2019) and am on the GPSolo Council now after serving as the GPSolo representative to the ABA House of Delegates for three years.

Although I have caught some criticism about doing too much bar work, I could not have done it any other way. The joy I have gotten being able to work side-by-side with other lawyers at food banks in different cities, or painting a children’s center, or planning women’s events and diversity events cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. It has enriched my legal experience beyond just being a job that I do nine to five. It balances out those stressful times when it seems too hard. I highly recommend that every lawyer participate in some form of bar association work. There is something out there for everyone. If you are into sports, volunteer to help with the bar’s fun run. If you love animals, get on the animal law committee. Start something new that has never been done before.

The best part of the service work you do with the bar, besides the public service, is the friendships you form. It can help you in your career in so many ways. It gives you credibility among your peers and gives others a sense of trust in you as a professional. I interviewed some of my lifelong friends and one new friend who I know share the same thoughts and ideas about the value of service to the profession, and I want to share some of their thoughts about service to the profession that echo mine.

Carrie F. Ricci, general counsel, U.S. Army, hit the nail on the head about how service to the profession really helped her career when she spoke at the GPSolo Keithe E. Nelson Memorial Military Law Luncheon at the 2023 ABA Midyear Meeting in New Orleans. I knew she would be a great person to interview for this article because, without even realizing it, at our luncheon she made the case for lawyers doing bar work. Following the luncheon, I interviewed her and asked her to share her experiences with bar association work, and here is what she told me:

I was a midcareer Army JAG officer serving in the Washington, D.C., area when I took a call from the JAG recruiting office asking if I would be willing to attend the Hispanic National Bar Association [HNBA] Annual Convention to recruit for the JAG Corps. Up until that point, I had not joined any bar association because I frankly didn’t think I needed it. I was convinced the Army already provided me with everything I needed for a successful career, including professional development and networking opportunities. I was happy to attend the HNBA conference as it was fully funded by the JAG Corps and included a gala event. (This girl loves dinner and dancing!) I still get chills when I think about the first time I walked into a ballroom filled with other Hispanic attorneys. I was immediately hooked! I became a member of the HNBA and immediately gravitated toward initiatives that were important to me. I was appointed to the Latina committee and served for ten years working to advance opportunities for Latinas in the legal profession, including pipeline activities for school-aged students. While I thought I didn’t need it for my career, I found it fed my soul. I participated in activities that aligned with my values and that simply felt good and brought me personal satisfaction. When you volunteer for something you believe in, it’s amazing how much you get out of it that you did not anticipate.

I asked her what is the biggest benefit of bar work to her, and she said:

Meeting wonderful people from across the legal spectrum has been the linchpin to my career success. I thought I didn’t “need” to be a member of a bar association to advance my career. Yet, participating in meaningful events and putting some sweat equity into causes that matter to me put me in close contact with lawyers from across the country working in many different legal disciplines. Through these associations, I developed a solid reputation as a hardworking and dedicated professional. What I didn’t realize when I dove headfirst into bar work is that I was “networking” without having to set it as an intention. The networking came naturally.

Looking back over the last 18 years of my association with the HNBA (and along the way, I joined other bar associations, including the ABA), I can affirmatively state that it has been the common factor in advancing my career at every stage. For each position and appointment, I can attest that I learned about the opportunity from an HNBA colleague, including my appointment as Army general counsel. It’s important to state that my service of 21-plus years as an Army judge advocate gave me the leadership and management skills that form the foundation of my success. But I must also say, from the senior executive service to appointment as Army general counsel, the people I met and relationships I established along the way through bar work have made all the difference!

Stephen J. Curley, 2021–2022 GPSolo Division Chair, told me, “Local bar work was expected of young associates in my first firm, Cummings & Lockwood, in Stamford, Connecticut. My work in the local affiliate led to a chance trip to the state-level young lawyers section, which in turn opened the door to leadership opportunities in the ABA Young Lawyers Division.” When I asked him what made him continue to do bar work, he answered, “The people. While in the end those people turned out to be terrific educational, inspirational, and referral sources, seeing my bar association colleagues was the biggest payoff to involvement. Even if it is a case or topic where I have little or no expertise, I still am called to help lawyers from around the country based on my bar work exposure.”

Alan O. Olson, GPSolo budget officer, Iowa representative to the ABA House of Delegates, and chair of the ABA House Select Committee, told me he got involved in bar association work “through a veteran member of the Iowa YLD and ABA YLD, Martha Flagg, who introduced me to both entities.” He continued to do bar work “in order to spend more time around so many of the amazing people I met from around the country and the world. Working with—and learning from—them, in furtherance of public service and member service, quickly became a passion. Meeting extraordinary people, experiencing enjoyable locations and experiences—all while making a meaningful, lasting, and positive difference in the lives of real people—it makes you a better person and keeps you grounded in what matters: using your gifts to help other people.”

Melvin O. Shaw, GPSolo Secretary and Division representative to the ABA House of Delegates, shared with me that he is a member of the voluntary Iowa State Bar Association (ISBA), where he serves as vice president and is on the leadership track to serve as ISBA president in 2024–2025. He told me:

By being active in the state bar, I have formed meaningful connections and relationships, and I have expanded my practice library and source materials through CLEs and other program attendance. In some instances, those state bar connections have led to informal mentor/mentee relationships with local attorneys and those across the state. My participation in the state bar has led to increased occasions for me to become familiar with judges in other state judicial districts. In other instances, those connections have resulted in client referrals, increased my small firm’s name recognition, and provided additional opportunities for me to serve the state bar and my local community. Of course, access to practice management and technology tools and access to CLE content are additional key benefits of state bar membership. My decision to join the ISBA with its 7,000-plus members is one of the best investments that I have made as a solo practicing attorney.

Jennifer A. Rymell, 2013–2014 GPSolo Chair, Division representative to the ABA House of Delegates, judge of Tarrant County Court, and one of my friends from Texas, told me about getting involved in bar association work:

When I first graduated from law school, I was a criminal prosecutor in a small town 30 miles west of Fort Worth, Texas. There were only four prosecutors in my office, and I wanted to meet other young lawyers. I decided to join the Fort Worth Tarrant County Young Lawyers Association to meet other young lawyers and become more involved in the profession. With respect to the ABA, I went to my first ABA YLD Affiliate Outreach Project meeting in the fall of 1994 in Washington, D.C., as a presenter of a young lawyer project. After that meeting I was hooked. I met such amazing young lawyers from all over the country and learned about so many innovative projects that I could take back to my affiliate bar association. What made me stay was the wonderful people that I worked with in bar association activities.

Additionally, when I began my association work, I volunteered for committees that worked with children, and seeing the difference we made in the lives of those children was inspirational. I believe the biggest benefit of bar work is the people you meet, which includes lawyers and members of the public. I have always worked in governmental jobs, so bar work has never been a source of referrals for me. However, meeting like-minded lawyers from diverse backgrounds and practice areas has made me a better lawyer and a better person. As an elected judge, I truly believe that my bar work was instrumental in raising my profile in the local legal community when I embarked on my campaign for my judicial office. I would have never met lawyers in other areas of practice and been able to garner their support but for working with them in the Fort Worth Tarrant County Young Lawyers Association and the Tarrant County Bar Association.

Henry Hamilton III, GPSolo Chair-Elect, president of the Iowa State Bar Association, and federal administrative law judge, told me:

I joined the ABA because a law school classmate, Alan Olson, asked me to join and persuaded me that it would be a great opportunity to build upon the relationships and work we began in law school. I attended my first ABA meeting in San Antonio in 1994 and was thoroughly impressed. I met attorneys from all over the nation, each interested in professional development and in improving our communities and the profession. I quickly immersed myself in bar activities at the state and national levels and have never looked back. I continue to do bar work because of the opportunities for professional development, the strength I’ve gained to make changes in my community, and in furtherance of the many friendships I’ve established over the years.

My bar activities have made me a better lawyer and a better judge. I am a sponge at bar meetings. There are so many amazingly talented people at these meetings. I soak up everything. I listen. I learn. I adapt. I went to law school to improve my community. Collaboration facilitates success. I’ve met like-minded individuals from all over the nation. Collectively, we can do more in our communities than anyone else could do alone. My community is better because I have been able to access support and guidance from folks in the bar association. Lastly, the friendships keep me coming back. I’ve met great people. I find you can often discuss career issues, community issues, and personal issues with fellow bar members that you may not be able to discuss with your colleagues or partners. Our longevity in the profession is strongly correlated with our ability to find positive outlets. The bar has been a positive outlet for me. In this way, bar involvement has not hampered my heavy pace as lawyer/judge but has made it more sustainable.

Henry went on to say:

Even after all these years, I believe the biggest benefit of bar work remains the opportunity for professional development. By its nature, the legal profession is saturated with very intelligent and capable people. It is difficult to stand out or to distinguish yourself, especially as a young lawyer. Bar involvement enhances your visibility within the profession and creates opportunities for advancement. Without a doubt, bar involvement made my law practice more efficient, more successful, and more profitable. Moreover, I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to hone my skills by teaching others what I know and by sharing my experiences. Contributing to the development and success of others is fulfilling.

Another benefit, of course, is the establishment of lifelong friendships. So much of our success as a lawyer has to do with the strengths and the depths of our networks. The stronger your network, the greater the opportunity to obtain referrals, trial assistance, health and wellness tips, law practice management skills, technological assistance/advice, etc. Moreover, the deeper your network, the greater your ability to effect real change in your community and the lives of others. We all enter this world with nothing, and we will leave this world with nothing. Our true value is what we do for others. The networks I’ve formed through bar involvement have allowed me to do much more for my career and community than I would have been able to alone.

Lynn Allingham, delegate-at-large to the ABA House of Delegates and former member of the ABA Board of Governors, shared with me:

I first got involved in bar association work when I saw a notice in our state bar publication that the ABA was looking for a young lawyer representative from Alaska. After talking by phone with several other young lawyer representatives in other states, I decided to go to the ABA Annual Meeting in Atlanta in the early 1980s. There, I met other young lawyers who were grappling with the same issues that I was: issues such as learning about the practice of law and making the transition from law school to law practice in a fairly large firm. I also was impressed by the public service work of the ABA Young Lawyers Division and the assistance that the YLD provided to young lawyers sections of bar associations around the country. I came home excited and energized and made a proposal to my local bar association to form a young lawyers section. I then served as the young lawyers representative to my local bar association board and eventually became a full board member and have served twice as president. I have also attended many annual and midyear ABA meetings since that initial meeting in Atlanta, and I always learn something new at each one. I enjoy the camaraderie of lifelong friends that I have made, and I am pleased to give back and try to pay forward all the many benefits that I have received through continued service to the ABA and to my profession.

H. Nicole Werkmeister, GPSolo Council member and membership director and ABA Section Officers Conference Liaison to the ABA Standing Committee on Membership, shared with me the following:

After passing the bar I attended a state bar function and met some wonderful young lawyers at a post-function happy hour, who I started hanging out with socially. They invited me to participate in our state YLD. Through our state YLD, I attended many ABA YLD meetings and met some lifelong friends. About 15 years after my ABA YLD days, one of my dear ABA YLD friends invited me to a GPSolo meeting, and I’ve been active in GPSolo ever since. Bar work has benefited my career. I’ve had publication and speaking opportunities through bar work, my bar work has been a source of referrals, and it has provided invaluable networking opportunities. However, the most rewarding aspect of my bar work has been the friends I have made. Some of my closest friends I met through my engagement in bar-related activities. It helps with my standing in the legal community. Lawyers I do not work directly with (or against) know me or know of me through my bar work. The same is true of judges. Many times, I appear in front of a judge who I met at a bar-related event. Bar work has helped expand my knowledge about the legal community and my legal community’s knowledge about me, which has been influential in developing my career.

David H. Lefton, GPSolo revenue director and 2016–2017 Chair and Ohio State Bar Association past president, shared this with me when asked the same questions about service to the profession:

Early in my career, a partner in my firm (formerly an Ohio State Bar Association [OSBA] Board of Governors member) recommended I get involved in the Ohio State Bar Association. After being prompted several times, with the partner’s assistance I was appointed to the OSBA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Council. Bar service is fun. The OSBA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Council is and was at that time a close-knit group of attorneys from around the state of Ohio. I quickly became friends with attorneys from around the state. Together, we provided great benefits for and achieved great success for solo and small firm attorneys in Ohio, whether through our newsletters, CLE, or projects, one of which won the ABA GPSolo Solo and Small Firm Project Award. For several of us, success at the state level led to positions of service on the national stage in the ABA GPSolo Division. In-person bar meetings have additionally taken me out of the office and provided opportunities to get together socially, travel, and see the state and country with colleagues, all while giving back to the profession. Bar service has afforded me opportunities to “recharge my battery” so I am more focused and a better lawyer when I am in the office. There are many benefits to bar service, but for me, bar service has provided me with a sense of community, both at the local level, statewide, and nationally. These community benefits include, but are not limited to, unlimited resources, getting my name out there, exposure to new and/or different perspectives, being mentored and serving as a mentor. . . . It has helped my standing in the community immensely. Reputation is something that is earned. There are a variety of ways to enhance your professional reputation, but doing bar service with colleagues at the local, state, and national level affords the opportunity to get to know your colleagues and work together while building relationships and trust. Service has afforded me the opportunity to build a strong reputation among the bench and bar.

Melody M. Wilkinson, GPSolo Vice Chair and Texas State Court district judge, told me:

It is an honor and a privilege to be a lawyer and now a judge. As a first-generation college graduate, I believe that gives me an even greater understanding of how fortunate I am to be able to help others. I receive personal satisfaction from helping others and contributing back to my profession. I love people and enjoy spending time with those who also like to help others. Some of my best friends are my friends from our bar service work on the local, state, and national levels who share a mutual love for our profession.

These are just a few of my lawyer friends who have worked closely with me in the bar and whose sentiments echo mine. We are lifelong bar association enthusiasts who love being a lawyer, who love helping others, who love serving the bar, and who love the friendships we have made all along the way. When you join these groups, you become a member of a community whose ties remain long after the initial service. You have instant credibility with your peers, too. I have had many lawyers tell me through the years that they know me and feel as if they have “grown up with me” in their careers. In the early days, my photo was in the bar journal every month. I wasn’t trying to get my photo in there, but by doing the work, it happened. There have been times in my practice when the connections I formed through bar work have come in handy. Like the time I called someone for information, and they said, “I’m not supposed to give out that information, but my boss was on the TYLA board with you years ago, and so I will tell you this. . . .” The instant affiliation made a difference in my case that day. I teach this to audiences of young lawyers and young people starting their careers: Lead with service. Start by seeing what it is you can do to make things better, go in with the spirit of wanting to give, and you will never be disappointed in what you get in return. It comes back multiplied over and over. And you do have time. Just make it, and don’t look back. Come join us at a GPSolo meeting in the future. We will welcome you with open arms. We lawyers need that connection we get from being together in this post-pandemic world.