For many young lawyers, the easy and immediate answer to the expectation of "getting involved" is participation within the legal community. Whether this is through active membership in the bar association or pro bono projects, involvement in the legal community can help young lawyers develop skills, generate referral sources with practitioners in other practice areas and learn about leads on new jobs.
Young lawyers are often encouraged to pursue extracurricular activities, which, in theory at least, reap quantifiable business benefits. Structured networking groups, for example, are designed to create business referrals. Particularly for young lawyers, however, the benefits of involvement in community and civic organizations provide substantial professional benefits that should not be overlooked. In this article, young lawyers share the contributions they have made and the benefits they have received through participation in charitable projects, leadership programs and other community engagement. Their experiences have been critical to their development as well-rounded counselors who are skilled at serving their clients with both experience and knowledge.
Jessica Nock, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and in-house counsel to ANH Refractories Co., joined the Junior League of Pittsburgh immediately after taking the bar exam in 2007. She was encouraged by a friend, then busy herself in a Ph.D/M.D. program, to join. Nock, understandably concerned about the time commitment, asked her friend how she could manage that commitment on top of her many others. Her friend assured her that through the hands-on and policy-level work the league was involved in to better the lives of women and children, the perspective she developed was well worth it to make the league a priority.
Over time, Nock has climbed the ranks to become the league's treasurer and serves on the league's executive board. In this role, she has learned to step out of her comfort zone and take challenges head-on. She started in the position with little experience in finance, but through the league's mentorship and old-fashioned hard work, she has learned principles of finance, budgeting, nonprofit management, fiduciary obligations and policy governance. These skills are immeasurably valuable for any well-qualified counselor, but traditional legal practice often does not provide learning opportunities in these subjects for young attorneys. To Nock, the varying opportunities within the league for both hands-on and director-level involvement are critical, as "knowledge at the ground level is essential for you to be able to do your duty at the executive level."
For Erin Lucas Hamilton, a senior associate with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, community involvement has come in the form of her volunteer time with Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, an organization providing permanent housing, care and services for adults with intellectual disabilities and autism. As the recently elected chair of Emmaus' Young Professional Advisory Board, her volunteer time involves both hands-on events and outings with Emmaus residents, as well as planning fundraising events to support the organization.
Hamilton's involvement has brought a consistent and welcome dose of empathy into her life, which is otherwise focused on the less warm-and-fuzzy practice of commercial litigation. By volunteering with Emmaus, her professional skills have sharpened. In particular, her ability to communicate in varying contexts and to varying audiences has developed markedly, which is a welcome ability for a litigator. The friendships she has developed with Emmaus residents have kept her grounded in the humanity of us all, which has enabled her to remain emotionally well-rounded within her professional life. "Practicing law can and does become all-consuming at times," Hamilton shared. "Emmaus has provided me a way to stay connected to my community, remain mindful of needs of others, and to contribute to a cause that I strongly believe in. I like that I can use my skills as an attorney in a context outside of the law to benefit such an amazing organization."
Krista-Ann Staley, an associate with Babst Calland, has fine-tuned her leadership abilities through her participation in the CORO Center for Civic Leadership's Women in Leadership Program, as well as through the CORO Pittsburgh Alumni Council, for which she now serves as vice president. As an acclaimed leadership institute, CORO attracts driven and accomplished young professionals into its programs. Therefore, her participation in CORO has allowed Staley to expand her network beyond the legal community, to include highly motivated and creative young professionals from a variety of fields.
By completing the program, Staley developed the prioritization, communication and organization skills to make projects work among ambitious, driven colleagues. This ability has transferred valuably to her practice in Babst Calland's public sector practice group, which frequently requires her to interface with communities where priorities and personalities run strong. In addition, she regularly draws on the consensus-building and strategic planning skills she learned from CORO when working on various firm committees. According to Staley, "It is hard to think of an aspect of [her] career that hasn't benefited from participating in CORO."
Associates have only 24 hours in a day, a seemingly unending flow of assignments and an employer's clear expectations for networking and business development. With those time-consuming demands, family and personal obligations and hope for occasional recreation, why would an associate dedicate even more time and effort to community projects?
First, community involvement promises satisfaction and meaning. To be blunt, although often intellectually stimulating, the practice of law is not always the most heartwarming profession. The profession can be mundane or at times even depressing. Involving oneself in a community organization with which you identify passionately, and for whose good work you feel a sense of contribution and ownership, is satisfying.
Second, community involvement provides the opportunity to develop skills that complement your legal practice but that you would not have the opportunity to actually hone in the usual course of your work. For Nock, for example, hands-on understanding of finance and fiduciary obligations added a necessary depth to her practice. In the workplace, she would have the opportunity to counsel on these topics but not actually explore or have responsibility for them. Yet, with the Junior League, she was able to handle such matters in a collaborative atmosphere and develop knowledge she would have only otherwise learned about from books.
Third, it humanizes you. Behind endless research and writing and the bristly personalities of both partners and clients, those people skills can get rusty. Whether your involvement is in the arts, social justice or leadership, your involvement will most likely involve supportive, not adversarial, relationships. People skills need to be maintained, just like any other skill, and active involvement in a positive role will keep your social skills sharp.
Fourth, you never know who you will meet. Priceless opportunities present themselves in unexpected places. Potential clients, leads and career moves often come about from chance encounters. Broadening your social sphere means increasing the likelihood of a valuable unexpected opportunity. So even when your interest may seem "off the beaten path," it may wind up having more traditional consequences. It may feel slow and self-defeating to jump into a community project with the concrete goal of gaining a client because it does not work so mechanically. Select an organization based on your interests, use the opportunity to develop your skills and contribute your energy and expertise, be friendly and make connections. Your involvement will benefit a valuable organization or project, you will find satisfaction, you will sharpen your skills and you may even wind up with the happy bonus of a valuable business connection.
Elizabeth F. Collura is an associate in Clark Hill Thorp Reed's commercial and corporate litigation practice group in the firm's Pittsburgh office. She counsels on legal issues relating to use of social media, and represents clients in a broad array of litigation, including disputes involving fiduciary duties, contractual obligations and civil rights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.