The Importance of Being Relevant: When Is It Time to Reinvigorate Your Young Lawyer Affiliate?
By Rachel E. Kopp
Rachel E. Kopp is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and practices with the firm of Spector, Roseman & Kodroff, P.C. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
With such little free time and so many different civic associations, young lawyers are faced with very difficult decisions in determining how and where to volunteer their time. This means that young lawyer organizations are faced with an even more difficult decision—determining how to attract talented leaders and maintain an active and thriving membership. One of the best ways to ensure that your affiliate accomplishes these goals and guarantees its success in the future is to make sure it is relevant now.
According to Affiliates Director Ryan Reed of Bowling Green, Kentucky, “Affiliates must stay relevant in order to properly carry out their missions of serving their members or the public. That means being attentive and responsive to the interests and concerns of the various constituent groups that are involved: young lawyer members, the senior bar association, and the civic or public groups who benefit from public service work done by young lawyers. It’s really a great deal to balance.” And striking such balance requires affiliates to be proactive in a number of ways.
Cultivating and Attracting Qualified Leaders
One of the first steps in making sure that your affiliate stays relevant is to undertake “a deliberate effort to develop its leaders. Leadership development should be a part of every long-range plan and should play a prominent role in the work of current officers. . . . In the absence of such a program, however, good organizations will lose some exceptional leadership candidates they have attracted,” Reed said. Affiliates can conduct this leadership training on a number of levels, including participating in training programs at ABA YLD meetings or using bar leadership mentors both locally and regionally. Whatever affiliates do, Reed explained, “the mechanisms for developing future leaders must be in place. It will not happen by accident.”
Evaluating Your Affiliate’s Effectiveness
Another important step in determining whether your affiliate is relevant is to closely analyze your affiliate’s success and growth potential. Success can be identified in a variety of ways, including increases in membership, improved participation in meetings and programs, or intensified enthusiasm among its leadership. Slumps in these areas, however, may indicate that it is time for your affiliate to reinvigorate itself. You do not need to wait for such a slump to reexamine whether your affiliate is continuing to meet the needs of its membership. The opportunity for reinvigoration might present itself when a group of new and energetic volunteers gets involved and raises innovative ideas regarding the affiliate’s structure.
An affiliate can also look for the support of an advocate or champion of the organization who may be serving as president or chair of the senior bar to help assess the relevance of the affiliate’s role. For example, when the Massachusetts Bar Association’s young lawyers affiliate noticed a decline in activism, the support of Mark Mason, current president of the Massachusetts Bar Association and former president of the MBA Young Lawyers, and the rest of the Massachusetts “big bar” enabled Sanjay Sankaran, chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (MBA/YLD), to reformat the affiliate from a “section” to a “division.” As a division, says Sankaran of Lowell, Massachusetts, the MBA/YLD “has an opportunity to build on the existing professional Public Services Department of the Massachusetts Bar in addition to working on relevant educational and legislative topics. The autonomy of a division will allow young lawyers to organize their own public service projects and social events.”
Taking Action
If you sense a need for your affiliate to take action to increase its relevance, making some simple modifications may not be as daunting as they might seem. Reed suggested that it helps to identify “one or two volunteer bar leaders who are committed for the proverbial ‘long haul.’” After these leaders are identified, they can assist your affiliate in setting realistic and achievable long- and short-term goals to help rebuild the organization. Then, as the goals are met, the confidence of the organization will grow.
Reed also advised affiliates to “[s]hake things up a bit—abandon the typical agenda and meeting site, insist on an ‘open line’ discussion where no topic is off limits. Hold ‘impulse surveys’—where the chair buys lunch for a handful of members, one or two at a time, and picks their brains on the topic of getting the group out of its rut. These all involve the same basic premise: ask for some ‘outside’ help, even if that means getting your people to think differently.”
Asking for Help
If your affiliate is faced with the exciting challenge of reinvigorating itself, don’t be intimidated. The ABA YLD offers many resources to help keep its affiliates relevant. First and foremost, the Affiliate Assistance Team (AAT) can send its members to an affiliate for a site visit—at little or (usually) no cost—to facilitate long-range planning, implement a model that will enhance the affiliate’s relevance, and present on leadership skills topics.
The AAT also administers the Affiliate Scholars program, which provides funding for affiliate members to attend the ABA YLD Fall and Spring Conferences and is in the process of developing “online toolkits, a one-stop resource for state and local bar leaders on a variety of topics,” previewed Reed. Affiliates can also reach out to other state and local bar associations that have shown success in maintaining their relevance or rely on fellow professionals in other organizations to help diagnose the affiliate’s strengths and weaknesses.
Of course, all change takes patience, and the key to any of these actions is follow-up. Reed noted that your affiliate must “empower people to help you make the changes that are identified or recommended.”
Sustaining Relevance
Once your affiliate begins to take steps to maintain its relevance, it can help sustain its relevance through modifications in its infrastructure. These modifications may be implemented slowly, such as through a new committee structure or lengthening the tenure of your affiliate’s officers. Alternatively, you may be fortunate enough to see improvement immediately like the MBA Young Lawyers, who have already established standing committees, a newly named slate of officers, at-large directors, and regional directors for the various counties in Massachusetts. “Regardless,” said Reed,” sustaining such energy on a long-term basis will be the product of design.”