- Association involvement is still a wise business development in 2023—assuming you plan it out and make the proper investment.
The most relevant and beneficial business development activity I have engaged in over the last two to three decades is—without question—my involvement in the American Bar Association. This probably does not come as any great surprise to you, as you are reading my column in an ABA publication. I made the decision long ago to invest in being an ABA “active,” and it is at the core of my own marketing and visibility.
But the ABA is not for everyone, nor are associations. I jumped in and out over the years with various state and local bars. Since my law practice was not jurisdiction-specific, the most likely local bar for me (Philadelphia) did not make a lot of sense. I wanted to engage with attorneys of varying practices who are geographically spread throughout the United States—thus, the focus on national and specialty bars over local, state or regional ones. For my interests and goals, the investment made sense.
We hear a lot about the next generation of lawyers being “non-joiners.” People point to all sorts of societal shifts—technology, politics, economics—as membership associations in general have seen a noticeable decline since the early 1990s, led by Generation X. I don’t so much see an unwillingness to join but questions as to the value of doing so. How much does it cost? What am I going to put into it? What am I going to get out of it? The ABA, like many other legal associations and organizations in general, is still slow to modernize, throwing good money after bad in using ineffective, outdated ways to engage. There are many long-standing legacy efforts that lost importance long ago yet continue to survive under the dinosauric “We’ve always done it this way” mantra.
What can I tell you? The biggest client I ever landed flowed from a cocktail reception conversation at an ABA meeting many years ago. One of the biggest clients of the last few years came from an attendee I had never met during an ABA CLE webinar. Readers have picked up this very column and called me to engage on the subject matter that I had discussed. It works. For sure. And those fellow ABA colleagues that became acquaintances, and later dear friends, have sent countless new business my way.
If I’m going to be completely honest, nowadays the biggest driver to get me to a bar association meeting is to hang out with my friends. But success in business generation in an association did not come overnight. It was not a silver bullet, but from playing the long game. And if I had to do it all over again, I would do nothing short of doubling down on the time put into ABA membership and involvement.
COVID-19 aside, the ABA did not sit idly on the sidelines ignoring the obvious. A complete restructuring of what originally was called the “new membership model” (of which I sat on that committee during my tenure as chair of the Standing Committee on CLE) changed dues structures and benefits to better reflect today’s profession. Since I’m not interested in being canceled by the old guard still dictating some things here in the ABA, I’ll just say there is still a long way to go in vetting out some of those long-standing attitudes and practices—from the governing bodies to the value of an Annual Meeting, and other areas I don’t need to point out if you are not privy to how the sausage is made. In the end, the pros outweigh the cons—and if you put in the time and effort to a section or division, you’ll likely thank me down the road.
I often sit down with attorneys to review the most important marketing tool that anyone possesses—the attorney bio. Almost all include a laundry list—sometimes short, sometimes long—of association memberships. I’ll often go down the list and ask the attorney what they do in each one. More times than not, the answer does not go beyond “pay the dues.” Many law firms I work with allow attorneys to select two bar memberships annually.
Often, the list is limited and provided for you. Too many times it is based on dues rates. Yet the law firm is often not demanding any stated involvement, any return on investment. I can just assure you that if all you do is pay dues and list “member” on your bio, the return on investment is zero. Nobody is going to select you or not select you based on stating a bar association membership. You do it to get involved and get value—or don’t do it at all. And when you do provide value back to the association, that line item in your bio does amount to a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
Getting value does not mean you must attend meetings and volunteer for leadership positions. Those are needed if “networking” is part of your equation. You may very well get value out of a publication, webinars and certain discounts. If that is the case, when I ask what you do in a particular bar association, tell me the resources alone are enough. And that’s OK, too. Bar association activity is not for everyone.
For those who have made the decision to show up at multiple association meetings over the course of a few years—which might mean an Annual, Midyear, Spring and Fall, among other possible conferences and special events (I got a lot out of ABA Day on Capitol Hill many years back)—you want to be seen as someone willing to get your hands dirty. Bar associations want new members, but when you are a new “active,” people will look to make sure you engage. When it comes to seeing new faces at a bar association meeting, there is nothing better than someone interested in volunteering to contribute.
You go about association strategy by doing the following:
Don’t just be a joiner, be a doer. The ABA Young Lawyers Division (YLD) or young professional segment of any organization is a great place to start if you are early in your career. Leadership in a YLD tends to develop those who might lead Business Law, Litigation or Law Practice Divisions down the line. There is a reason that many substantive law sections of bar associations are led by prominent attorneys in the field. Here’s a hint: They are not doing it unless there is value in the return.
Which bar makes the most sense for your practice? Local, national, regional, international? Specialty bar? There is no right answer. If travel is out of the question, stay closer to home. If your practice is dependent on referrals from local lawyers, you may be better off going the county, city or state bar route. I also like law firms to spread the love among numerous bar associations—not have everyone clustered in one or two. This allows the firm brand to be exposed to a wider audience through individual participation.
For some, a specialty bar makes more sense. It might be practice-specific, or perhaps tied to race, religion or culture. The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association is one of my favorites, with a powerful lobby and active member base. For some, the National Bar Association may provide better value than other national bars. Invest in a place where you are comfortable and excited to participate.
Make sure you enjoy it. While I’ve often advocated in recent years to move more bar association meetings to metropolitan locations (easier to get to and less expensive), exciting destinations might make for a win-win opportunity. My wife might roll her eyes at Las Vegas, San Juan or Napa Valley—but, hey, camaraderie among colleagues in fun places does yield results (and perhaps a hangover or two). You just need to make sure you are mixing pleasure with business.
It often takes up to two years of active membership in an association to see tangible benefits. Don’t go into it with a one-and-done attitude by going to one meeting and declaring “It’s not for me.” Association involvement is still a wise business development in 2023—assuming you plan it out and make the proper investment.