Attorneys new to practicing face many challenges. They need to acclimate to their firm’s environment and culture and learn the best way to communicate and work with their colleagues, all while trying to build their professional skills and expand their networks.

One way that young lawyers can help themselves is to help others.

Community involvement allows young lawyers to enhance their skills and broaden their circles of connections, while providing crucial support to programs that help local people in need.

“A fundamental aspect of the legal practice is developing relationships with your clients,” said Aneesh Mehta, incoming chair of the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) of the Philadelphia Bar Association and an attorney at Volpe and Koenig. “Young lawyers who give back to their communities gain the ability to network with community members and other professionals, and develop critical problem-solving, leadership and development skills.”

In 2012, the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, in partnership with the YLD of the Philadelphia Bar Association, developed the Board Observation Program, an initiative that gives young lawyers practicing in Philadelphia the opportunity to learn more about local legal services organizations and the leadership skills necessary to serve on the boards of such organizations, according to Lynne E. Brown, executive director of the foundation.

Through the program, a young lawyer is paired with a legal services organization in Philadelphia and given the opportunity to observe that organization’s board activities for one year. Nineteen young lawyers participated in the program’s inaugural year, working with nine public interest legal organizations. Participants gained experience in such diverse areas as event planning, social media, marketing, employee communication and fundraising.

“The BOP provided for an unequaled opportunity to glimpse inside the pro bono organizations that serve those who lack equal access to justice,” said Ryan Gatto of Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney, a 2012 board observer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. “The educational programs on various aspects of board service were truly impressive and worthy of inclusion in any law school class covering ethics and pro bono practice.”

According to Matthew Laver, vice chair of the YLD and an attorney at Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby, the partnering organization provides the young attorney with a mentor on the board to help him or her understand how to be a board member. “Additionally, the YLD offers a series of live lunch-and-learns in which lecturers are brought in to teach these observers various aspects of board membership, including accounting for nonprofits, fundraising, organizational dynamics and just a general nuts-and-bolts of nonprofits,” he said.

Jeniece Davis, adjunct faculty member at DeVry University and a board observer with the Disability Rights Network, said, “The Board Observation Program is valuable as a leadership development program and helps provide observers with the skills they need to make meaningful contributions now and in the future.”

“Our hope is that this experience will not only foster a greater appreciation of the amazing work performed by nonprofits all over the city, but will train these young attorneys to be the next generation of nonprofit leaders,” Mehta said.

In addition to the BOP, the YLD provides a variety of programming with a focus on engaging and supporting the local community, such as a monthly Legal Line to answer specific legal questions from community members, and playing a leading role in coordinating the annual Law Week celebration in Philadelphia, which includes numerous events targeted to elementary through high school students. In 2013, the YLD plans to expand its outreach and seek other young professional groups interested in joint events, which would allow young lawyers to meet additional referral sources and potential clients.

Chester County has had a program similar to the BOP for nearly a dozen years. Leadership Chester County (LCC), a collaborative effort of the United Way of Chester County, Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry and West Chester University, was developed in 2000 to train business and professional people in nonprofit board leadership, then place them at organizations in need of their expertise.

The eight-month program includes training in board governance and fiduciary responsibility, strategic planning, nonprofit fiscal management, fundraising/philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, risk management and board development. Featured sessions include an agency fair, advocacy and community problem-solving.

Participants work as a team on a challenge project that directly benefits a local agency. Classes include existing board directors and novice volunteers from attorneys and business executives to nonprofit organization staff, government agency employees and retired professionals whose diverse perspectives and areas of expertise enliven classroom discourse and add valuable insights to the project’s development. LCC’s board placement service ensures that graduates are given the opportunity to match their skills and interests to serve the needs of county nonprofits. The program’s 259 graduates have formed networks supported by a LinkedIn group, regular postings of new board opportunities and educational sessions.

Annually since 2003, Gawthrop Greenwood has sponsored participation in LCC for one of its attorneys; several have gone on to serve with nonprofits throughout the county. Patrick McKenna went through the program in 2006-07 and joined the board of Safe Harbor of Chester County in 2008, helping to guide the organization as it built an addition and doubled its capacity; he served as president of the board from 2010-12 and is currently vice president.

Stephen Olsen completed the program in 2011. His class worked with Adult Care of Chester County. “The ACCC board allowed us to review and assist them with a few projects,” Olsen said. “Working hands-on really enabled us to put the theory into practice and see how real boards deal with recruitment, rolling out new initiatives and planning for the future of the organization.” Olsen currently serves Wills for Heroes as Chester County coordinator.

“Leadership Chester County provided me with a tremendous amount of information about nonprofits,” said Basel Frens, the firm’s most recent LCC graduate. “In addition to the core material, I also gained the invaluable experience of getting to know and working with others who share a common interest in serving area nonprofits.”

“Firms investing in their employees’ education and placement on nonprofit boards demonstrate a valuable commitment to the community,” said Mary Anne Feeley, LCC program director and manager of community engagement at the United Way of Chester County. “Leadership skills and understanding of often-ignored or unseen social problems develop deeper appreciation for the needs of others, a passion to serve and the tools to make a difference in their personal and professional realms of influence.”

Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania (LASP) provides high-quality civil legal services to low-income people, victims of domestic abuse and the elderly living in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties. “We offer young attorneys an opportunity to do pro bono civil legal work, receive some relevant training and experience — often in a hearing or courtroom — and ongoing legal advice,” said Harvey F. Strauss, LASP co-executive director. “The time commitment depends on the attorney’s availability. Pro bono attorneys are always needed.”

The program generally needs the work of pro bono attorneys in the areas of family law, bankruptcy and mortgage foreclosure defense. “If someone has an interest or experience in other civil areas, like elder law, consumer law or landlord-tenant disputes, we may find that useful, too,” Strauss said. Pro bono attorneys working with LASP may gain professional recognition from the program, their local bar associations and the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.

In addition to all the organizations mentioned above, the Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County and Montgomery bar associations all have young lawyer sections or divisions. They are a great place to start your search for community engagement opportunities. You may also research local programs to find out what kind of volunteer assistance they may need. And you may ask more experienced attorneys in your firm for suggestions on involvement in the community. Working in an area that interests you makes the experience all that more rewarding.

By forging deep connections to their communities, young lawyers not only make them better places to live and work, but also augment their own skills while making valuable professional connections. It’s truly a win-win. •

Sandra L. Knapp is chair of the management committee and partner in the business and real estate practice group at Gawthrop Greenwood. Her specific practice areas include business law, commercial transactions, maritime and real estate law, finance and banking. She can be reached at 610-696-8225 or sknapp@gawthrop.com.