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September 12, 2012 Articles

Professional Development Through Bar Association Involvement

Involvement in a local or national bar can help you develop leadership skills and grow a network of professional contacts and friends.

By Christina Plum

A couple of weeks after starting law school, I happened upon a sign-up sheet in the career-services office. The state bar was seeking law-student liaisons to various bar entities. Thinking it sounded like a good way to learn more about my new chosen profession, I signed up to be a liaison to the Young Lawyers Division (YLD). Little did I know that this single act would lead to years of bar involvement at the state and national levels, which had a profound impact on my professional development as a lawyer.

When I tell people that I have grown as a lawyer as a result of bar involvement, they generally assume I mean that I have benefitted from being an active consumer of bar publications and continuing-legal-education programs. To be sure, those member benefits have helped me stay informed about changes in the law. But, bar involvement has also helped me develop in countless other ways.

Bar involvement has helped me develop as a leader. I have learned how to run a meeting, motivate volunteers, engage in long-range planning, engage with lawyers from every state in the country, and plan and execute a public project. The first time you attend a conference call run by someone with bar experience, you’ll hear the difference: Look for a formal agenda, a substantive discussion, and decisive action. Bar leaders learn those skills while planning programs, publications, and events, and they can use those same skills as they orchestrate complex litigation, negotiate with opposing counsel, and manage their law offices. Lawyers with bar experience are also valuable members of community boards and non-profit organizations, as they become known for getting the job done in an organized and efficient manner.

One of the best examples of bar leadership in action took place in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. On Monday morning, while the effects of the hurricane were just coming to light, ABA President Michael Greco called me to talk about what the existing Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services program might be able to do to assist lawyers and residents of the Gulf Coast. (I was the chair of the YLD at the time, and we had a long-standing Disaster Legal Services program that we coordinated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.) Within hours, numerous ABA bar leaders had pledged the support of their sections to assist hurricane victims. Several days later, representatives from the Section Officers Conference and many ABA entities met by phone to discuss the disaster, and in the following months, lawyers donated thousands of hours of time through responses organized by the ABA and state and local bar associations. The existence of bar associations and leaders who could call on their individual leadership experience to assist disaster victims was tremendously helpful to thousands of people living in the affected areas. It was a proud moment for our country’s bar associations.

On a personal level, being active in bar activities has also allowed me to create a network of lawyers who support me professionally and personally. When I was changing jobs early in my career, I called on that network of people to help me find new opportunities. Having a statewide and nationwide network was especially important to me as I moved to different cities. And professional networking aside, creating a network of friends I connect with regularly has been personally rewarding. It is the professional and personal connections that many bar leaders form that keep them involved for decades.

I also credit my bar association involvement with increasing my knowledge of the legal profession and its challenges. For instance, the Section of Litigation has presented a number of programs on the plight of children in foster care and the need for them to have legal advocates and be heard in court. When someone asks about that issue, or civil legal services, court funding, the legal job market, or a host of other issues, I can answer with solid information. I can also be a better advocate for the profession, such as when I have spoken to middle-school students about pursuing a career in law.

Finally, being involved in bar activities has allowed me to hone my public-speaking and writing skills. Within my first three years of practice, I both published articles and spoke at conferences: both wonderful opportunities for a new lawyer. According to at least one member of the state young-lawyers board who knew me from the time I was a first-year law student, over the years I developed a greater confidence through my participation, which later showed in my work as a lawyer and a law-school adjunct professor.

If any of these reasons to pursue bar association involvement resonate with you, I hope you’ll reach out to the Young Advocates Committee and the larger Section of Litigation. All levels of involvement are welcome: Be an active consumer of publications, attend a meeting, write an article, record a podcast, participate in a public-service event—there are as many opportunities for involvement as there are reasons to use bar activities as a component of your professional development. I hope that you find your participation as professionally and personally rewarding as I have.

Christina Plum of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a cochair of the Young Advocates Committee.