- If you are chosen for board service and higher leadership, you will have earned a career-defining capstone experience.
I worked in a bar association for a long time, first as a law practice management advisor and later as senior manager leading the volunteer-facing departments of our association. That work gave me a ringside seat to something I never understood in my first 10 years of law practice: that in addition to all the good that bar association volunteers contribute to others (pro bono clients, legislative activity, the running of the association itself), an enormous amount of value redounds to the volunteers themselves in the form of skill building, professional network curation and leadership development.
Bar association volunteering is, in my opinion – and I say this as someone who no longer works in an association but continues to volunteer for several – a powerful secret weapon for developing law firm culture, strong associate attorneys, and keen leadership ability for firm owners.
But just as these tremendous opportunities exist for lawyers participating in a bar association, it is certainly possible to belong to an association and reap none of these benefits. Like joining a gym, the membership itself doesn’t confer the greatest benefits (the author says from long and unfortunate experience); consistent dedication and participation does.
So I wanted to share a (former) insider’s guide of how to reap the greatest value from bar association membership. There are no shortcuts. To reap the greatest rewards, you must put in sustained effort. But for the attorneys who do, your career will be made deeper, more vibrant and more successful.
Lots of associations offer free or heavily discounted membership dues during the early years of practice. Treat this like a free year subscription to Netflix: log in and go find every single thing you might conceivably enjoy and try it all. Sure, not everything you try will be gems, but if you find one or two things that really add value to your professional life, it will be time well spent.
Most state bar associations offer a free legal research tool to members, mostly Fastcase. Fastcase is an excellent research tool that will serve you well in your practice and help save you thousands in expenses. If you have a current paid subscription to another legal research tool, this is a perfect opportunity to do some A/B testing. Run your queries in both platforms for a while and determine the relative value proposition for yourself. If you can remove a line item from your firm budget with no loss in capability, that’s a no-brainer for your bottom line.
Many of the state bar associations offer a practice management advisory service; think of them as in-house consultants to help with practice management issues. If you are starting a practice or running a small practice, getting to know your practice management advisor can be tremendously valuable. Depending on their background, they may be an expert in legal technology, a former firm administrator, or a former law firm managing partner. These services are usually offered free to bar association members and can offer some of the highest ROI of association benefits.
If you still qualify for participation in the YLD, investing time in that group will help you build a professional network that will last you the duration of your career. It’s an easy group to get involved with: YLD members frequently contribute an immense amount of pro bono and other volunteer, work to their associations. Start by looking up the YLD chair and reach out to them directly. Tell them you are a new volunteer and you’d like to contribute somewhere they need some help. I guarantee you will find yourself with a new project and a bunch of new contacts in short order.
If you are, ahem, past YLD qualification age, you can do many of the same things by getting involved in a section. (Actually, section involvement is a good idea for YLD members, too.) Think of sections as your learning community within the bar. This is the place where lawyers discuss the pressing issues of your practice area, put on the most relevant continuing education you will find, and contributing to legislation germane to your practice. There is usually an email list or discussion forum where the members discuss pertinent issues. Join the discussion when you join the section. An active section forum can be one of the best practice aides a lawyer can find. Pro tip: sign up for the discussion group with a Gmail account and archive every single thread. You will have a fully searchable archive of the discussions for years to come.
Aside from you and the members of your firm (and probably your mom) nobody wants you to have a rewarding experience at bar association events more than your bar association staff. Get to know one or two of them and you will always have a friendly face at a social event or a CLE. Start with someone in membership or the manager for your section or division and go from there.
It’s easy to blow off the social events your bar puts on. There’s always another one around the corner, it can be awkward to attend an event where you don’t know anyone, and they don’t seem as important as whatever actual work is stacking in your inbox. Bar social events are, however, an excellent way to broaden your professional network. Even if you don’t know anyone, you walk in knowing you all have some key things in common: you’re lawyers in the same state and members of the same association. Get to know some lawyers from outside your section and practice area and you may also find a new referral source.
Every year your bar has an annual meeting. It is the big event of the year, in which the new bar president is installed, awards are conferred, and so on. It’s tempting to pass on this event as something reserved for just board members and awards honorees, but that’s a mistake. For many bar associations the attendees at the annual meeting are just a small fraction of the total membership; and that fraction is made up disproportionately of volunteers in high leadership positions. If you attend, you will immediately stand out and will be warmly welcomed. There will be interesting speakers, informative CLE, and good meals – all in some pleasant venue. And you will walk away with a handful of new contacts from among the top of your bar’s volunteer and staff leadership.
Teaching CLE in your practice area can be a highly effective reputation enhancer. It is a lot of work and takes a lot of time, but there are several benefits from investing the time and energy. You will display expertise by presenting to a group; your written materials will be stored and referred to by lawyers for years; and if your bar records your presentations, your hour of education could be taken by hundreds or thousands of lawyers over the period of years the program is timely. Hard to beat that ROI.
Most associations have a variety of content outlets for their members to contribute writing. It could be anything from a section newsletter to the association’s flagship magazine. If you are more of a writer than a public speaker, writing a thoughtful essay or analysis confers many of the same benefits as teaching a CLE without having to stand in front of a room of strangers for an hour.
One of the easiest places to develop your leadership skills at a bar association is through your section. Once you have established yourself as an active volunteer and contributed to some section undertakings (CLE, writing, pro bono activities, etc.) you will likely be presented with the opportunity to serve on the section council. After serving on the council, you may find yourself in the leadership pipeline to serve as chair. Like a lot of the other things we’ve discussed in this article, serving as chair is a sizable time commitment but it is rewarding and will give you an opportunity to lead a group of hundreds or thousands of lawyers and serve the profession.
If you’ve come this far and made your way up through section leadership, the natural culmination of bar association leadership is service on the governing board. Board service (and serving as president) are the highest volunteer contributions you can make to an association, and they require a time commitment over years that reflects the importance of the positions. There is no better place in an association to deploy the leadership skills that you have gained from years of volunteering. If you are chosen for board service and higher leadership, you will have earned a career-defining capstone experience.
My colleague and friend, Patti Ramseur, who will become the next president of the North Carolina Bar Association this June, had this to say about her experience volunteering for a bar association:
“Over the years, the opportunity to participate in North Carolina Bar Association activities has allowed me to connect with others in the legal profession who I would not have otherwise known and to engage in meaningful pro bono activities that benefit individuals throughout state. It’s made my career significantly more meaningful, both personally and professionally.”
I couldn’t say it any better, and I wish the same for you and your career in 2023.