This week one of my clients said, “One of the best things I did for my law practice was to get active in the state bar.” Many attorneys who regularly volunteer in their state, local or national bar association tell me similar things. Through bar work they developed friends, referral sources and reliable sounding boards for vexing legal questions and practice management issues. They also became familiar with services and benefits available to them through their bar associations that they had missed out on before.

A Young Lawyer’s View

As a young lawyer, my firm paid my local and state bar association dues, but I didn’t take full advantage of that. I attended a few local CLE lunches and, when I was single, I went to a few young lawyer happy hours. I spent more time in bars serving margaritas than in bars serving the legal profession. To be honest, I felt a little awkward in an environment where more experienced lawyers all seemed to know each other. I told myself that I had too many other demands on my time, and I couldn’t see much benefit anyway.

In later years I saw that some of my cohorts had developed quite a reputation for themselves across the state, and I wondered how they did it. It turned out that they had gotten active in the bar. Certainly quality legal work was an important element of their reputation, but they built the foundation for that reputation long before they had mature legal experience.

The Steps They Took

Initially, as young lawyers they volunteered to be a greeter at meetings of the local bar association or to take on administrative tasks. They found out that reliable workers quickly get more responsibility in a volunteer organization like a bar association. Soon they participated in the coordination of events, and got opportunities to chat with expert speakers in the process. They began to have their names remembered by local rock stars in their practice area. Having proved that they could be counted on, they took on leadership roles, chairing committees or sections. They were invited to join planning committees for the local bar events. They suggested interesting topics that allowed them to showcase research they had done, this time as the speaker.

They took similar steps in state or national bar associations, initially in the young lawyer divisions. Sometimes that resulted in an opportunity to give their local speech at a state bar conference. As a fellow speaker, they had fun dining with legal luminaries at the speaker dinner and developed relationships with lawyers across the state or across the country. Before long they developed some noteworthy speaking topics, and their names started recurring as speakers at various conferences. Lawyers who saw their names again and again in CLE brochures began to view them as experts, without even hearing them speak. Fellow speakers and conference attendees made referrals to them. They recommended them for appointment to prestigious positions in the legal profession and the larger community. Their practices grew.

Surprisingly Easy

Viewed from the outside, bar association leadership can appear tight-knit and exclusionary. Perhaps at the highest levels that’s an accurate perspective. It can take many years of service to pay the dues necessary to rise to the very top. The entry price at lower levels is cheap, however. Just be willing to work in whatever organization you join. Do what you say you will do, promptly and well. You will be surprised at how quickly people open doors for workers they can count on.

Young lawyers who volunteer stand out as go-getters, because so few show up ready to pitch in. Most don’t even attend bar functions, or they hang back, perhaps feeling they don’t really have anything to contribute. They wait to be invited to participate, but an invitation may never come. Everyone is busy, and no one may notice your availability unless you step up and offer to help.

Is It Worth the Time Investment?

Most lawyers today already feel like they have too many demands on their time. Young lawyers, in particular, feel constant pressure to keep their billable hours up. Bar participation doesn’t result in immediate gratification. It is easy to question the value of investing time in it, in a world where a book becomes a best-seller the day after Oprah Winfrey talks about it or Justin Bieber skyrockets to success after posting his video on YouTube, or YouTube itself is sold for $1.65 billion less than two years after its founding.

Most relationships and reputations take time to develop, however, and that’s where referrals and opportunities come from. Bar activity can accelerate the process of developing them. Whether you work in a “Big Law” firm or a small firm, you will eventually need to demonstrate your ability to develop clients. Even in-house and government lawyers learned the importance of building relationships and a reputation in the last few years, when many found themselves looking for a new job.

As you weigh the return on investment of your time in bar activities, consider the long-term value of having your name recognized by lawyers who have never met you, and being among the youngest associates to receive business referrals at your firm. If you are already on your own, you know the importance of that. Do you have an alternative plan that will bring those results? •

Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach LLC, a law practice management training and coaching firm. She practiced law for 18 years and has been a professionally trained executive coach for more than 11 years. She is a frequent speaker and writer on law practice management topics, and has served as the vice chair of the law practice management committee of the State Bar of Texas. She welcomes questions and comments at 713-682-4353 or debra@lawyer-coach.com.