During my 16 years of practice, I have been involved with four different bar associations. With each new membership, I became more involved in the bar association. What I have realized is that the more involved I have been with my local bar association, the more I have gotten out of my membership. As the current membership chairperson for the Chester County Bar Association, I feel it is important not only to recruit new members, but also to retain current membership by offering something for everyone. While it is never too late to become an active participant in your local bar association, I believe that to reap the most opportunities, you should get involved in your local bar association as early in your career as possible. Below, I offer my top 10 reasons why you should not only join, but also be involved in, your local bar association.
Meet Young Lawyers
Every bar association I have been involved in has had a young lawyers division that has its own meetings and sponsors its own events. Whether you practice in the county you grew up in (and therefore know a lot of people), or are brand new to the county (and do not know anyone yet), the young lawyers division of your local bar association provides you with the opportunity to meet new people just like you. Connecting with other young lawyers is particularly helpful if you work at a smaller firm where you may be the only “young” lawyer.
The early days of being a lawyer are not always the easiest and we may doubt ourselves and the profession we have chosen. Having a network of similarly situated young lawyers to commiserate with or to share your experiences with can be helpful to building the confidence you need in your career. In addition, meetings of the young lawyers division are typically driven by topics that are important to young lawyers, such as how to manage law school loans, how to change your area of practice and social happy hours.
Meet Older Lawyers and Possible Mentors
Many active older members of your local bar association have been involved in the bar association for many years. If you are willing to listen, they will gladly tell you stories of the “good old days” where civility and professional decorum were the norm, not the exception, and how the instant gratification of emails and facsimiles has ruined the profession of law. These lawyers remember what it is like to be a young lawyer (and likely find it hard to believe so many years have passed since they were young lawyers themselves). Many lawyers are happy to share their thoughts on the practice of law, the changes in the legal profession, or even to help with a substantive area of the law you may not be familiar with just yet.
Many bar associations have formal mentor programs. Even if there is not a formal mentor program, it is very easy to develop informal mentor relationships with members of the bar association. Typically, in addition to large-scale yearly events, your local bar association will have sections or committees that meet more regularly and give you the opportunity to have more one-on-one time with members of the bar association and to develop more meaningful relationships.
Many judges were themselves active members of their local bar associations and remain so after they take the bench. It is helpful to get to know the judges in a more relaxed bar association setting before having to face them in their courtrooms. Being an active participant in your local bar association also affords the judges the opportunity to get to know you as well. I have personally witnessed many judges ask who certain young members are because they are interested in getting to know the young lawyers who attend bar association events. Moreover, by being an active member of your local bar association, you have the opportunity to ask other practioners for
the “inside scoop” about particular judges, their practices and their pet peeves. Many judges regularly participate in bench-
bar conferences or meetings, enabling you to hear “straight from the judge’s mouth” his or her likes and dislikes. This type of information can be invaluable if you are deciding whether or not to pursue a particular type of relief or to file a particular motion.
Build a Reputation
In today’s legal profession, your reputation can be one of the strongest indicators of your success and one of your greatest strengths. You have the ability to control your reputation. Do you want to be known as a straight shooter who is on top of your cases or do you want to be known as the attorney who flies by the seat of her pants and is never prepared? Merely being involved in the bar association shows you care about your career. Showing up, being prepared and taking the lead will help build a strong reputation among fellow practioners as well as judges. Building a strong reputation within the bar association
will also come in handy when your opponent asks other members about you, which he will once he realizes you are an active participant in your bar association.
With the vast number of committees, sections and events, there is always an opportunity to lead within your local bar association. Again, judges often take notice of the leaders of the young lawyers division. At the very least, your name will be in the directory as a leader. By becoming involved in the young lawyers division, you can often chart your path to a spot on the board of directors for the bar association, ensuring that you have built a name for yourself. More importantly, do not sit around and wait for someone to ask you to lead — step up, volunteer and show others you are capable of leading. Once given the opportunity to lead, follow through, instill confidence and impress others.
Serve Your Community
Most bar associations are not merely about the legal community. Rather, they extend their outreach to the community at large either through service work through organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, pro bono programs, or in-school programs to teach elementary and middle school students about the legal profession. For high schoolers, local bar associations typically sponsor mock trial competitions. Whether you serve as a juror, a judge or a coach for one of these teams, you will have made a difference and will possibly make yourself feel a bit better in the process.
Obtain CLE Credits
Many bar associations offer discounted CLE credits. As a young lawyer, you might not have the funds to pay for expensive CLEs or perhaps your firm will only pay a certain amount for you to obtain your CLE credits. By being an active member of the bar association, you can take advantage of cost-saving CLEs (as well as many other member benefit programs).
Bar associations provide a plethora of opportunities to network and to meet people. Take advantage of these opportunities. Make it a point to meet three new people at each event you attend. If you are not comfortable introducing yourself to others, ask a more experienced member of the bar, or someone from the bar association staff, to introduce you to people. Tell people you meet about your practice. Get to know attorneys who do not practice in the same area that you do because you never know when they may have the opportunity to refer you a case.
Bar associations often provide a wonderful feeding ground for firms looking for new associates. In today’s market, provided you have the requisite educational background and experience, firms are often concerned whether you will simply be “the right fit.” By establishing relationships with others through your local bar association, you will have a leg up on applicants who are sending their resumes blindly. You never know where your next big case or your next job will come from, but being an active participant in your local bar association certainly helps.
Expand Your Knowledge And Improve Your Career
By joining the section or committee
for your practice area, not only will
you meet new people, but you will also
have the opportunity to sharpen your skills and learn about the latest trends. Often times, the size and informality of section and committee meetings present members with the unique opportunity to ask
questions about a substantive area of
the law, a rule or a procedure without the fear of looking incompetent. Chances are, others in the room may have the same question but are afraid to ask. Also, by getting to know attorneys who practice in a similar area, you increase the chance of knowing your next opponent. While lawyers must be advocates for their clients, personally knowing and having a good relationship with your adversary can often help you resolve a case more favorably for your client.
Bar associations provide the opportunity for a lot of fun. From casual social events
to community events to section and
committee meetings, bar association members are always having fun. Often, as lawyers, we take ourselves too seriously. Being an active member of the bar association
allows us to let our hair down, take off
the boxing gloves and enjoy the company of our fellow lawyers, whether those in
our own offices or those on the other side of the aisle.
I hope I have convinced you of the benefits to joining, and being involved in, your local bar association. If you are convinced but do not know where to start, simply call your local bar association. Let them know what your interests are and ask for suggestions on what activities might be a good fit for you. I promise, you will not be disappointed.
Stephanie Nolan Deviney is a partner in the Exton, Pa., office of Fox Rothschild. She handles litigation and construction matters in both state and federal courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.