With so many demands on a lawyer’s time, anything additional must be well worth it. Active involvement in Bar Associations or other, similar professional organizations, definitely passes that test.
To reap the benefits, just being admitted to the bar in your jurisdiction doesn’t do the trick; you must seek out and involve yourself in the broader legal community. Many such professional groups compete for your “free” time, which is a scarce commodity, so be selective. Look for bar associations and similar professional organizations that engage in other activities such as organizing continuing legal education programs, holding public forums on topics of interest, taking part in lobbying and legislative work, publishing reports, and the like. Once you join, get involved—become active in sections, divisions, committees. If you start early in your career, you’ll find it just becomes part of your DNA, an integral and vital part of your professional life.
The primary advantage to participating in bar association activities is making contacts and fostering relationships with other members that are not only fulfilling but also professionally useful for advice, career moves, referrals, and business development. Hard-working lawyers tend to put their heads down and concentrate on their work. Getting out of the office and becoming involved in “extracurricular” activities exposes you to people in different types of firms, levels of seniority, a variety of practice areas, and possibly even to government officials and judges. It provides a community of professionals with a diversity of backgrounds. By rubbing elbows with lawyers you would not have met otherwise, you gain a broader perspective on the profession.
Early in your career, especially, a bar association’s built-in networking source can provide access to formal and informal mentorship opportunities and role models. Some professional organizations have formal coaching programs. But, even on an informal basis, contacts made through participation in bar activities are a valuable source of information and solutions when you face a challenging situation in your practice. And, don’t forget the flipside: You also can be a mentor. You might have a skill or knowledge that is valuable to someone else, even to lawyers more senior than you.
By joining a bar association practice section, you will meet attorneys with a wide range and depth of experience in your specialization, which provides excellent educational and mentoring opportunities with those passionate about the same area of law. Alternatively, by attending a variety of section programs, you can explore new practice areas if you are considering retooling your skills, changing direction, or expanding your expertise.
Most bar associations provide educational programs, conventions, award dinners, and other related events where you can mix with like-minded professionals in the field. Volunteering to plan and execute these bar association programs and initiatives allows you to gain exposure, raise your visibility, and enhance your reputation in the larger legal community. Following through on your word puts your work ethic and professionalism on display. When other bar association members need to think of a good lawyer to recommend, you will be front of mind. They will be confident that you are a “can-do” lawyer, even if they haven’t seen your actual legal work. This increased visibility can be essential when trying to enhance your own professional brand, especially in the beginning of your career, and can help your firm grow, since potential clients and colleagues like to do business with a familiar face.
Bar Associations present opportunities for you to speak at the various programs, panels, and seminars offered to members. Many associations have publications with articles written by members. Getting published is a great way to establish yourself as an authority in certain areas of law. If available, also participate in the organizations’ forums, chat groups or discussion boards to get your name (and your firm’s) out there as an authority in a particular legal specialization.
Bar associations also allow you to develop your skills as a leader in a way not always available within the law firm structure. Starting first at the local program, committee, and section level, you can build over time to leadership of the organization as a whole. This is important not only for your personal growth, but also for your progression within your firm as many partnership promotion and compensation decisions factor in community involvement and leadership potential.
Volunteering in bar-sponsored pro-bono projects exposures you to other areas of law, hands-on experiences, and practice skills over and above what is available at your firm. As a bonus, pro-bono work such as drafting amicus briefs or coordinating initiatives to support socially conscious community efforts on projects that match your values allows you to do something good for the world.
Bar associations also can help you land your next career opportunity. In addition to learning about job openings via networking with fellow members, many organizations have listservs where potential employers, including law firms of all sizes, in-house legal departments, non-profits, and governmental entities post their open jobs. Watch for and attend bar association programs that cover career development topics such as resume writing and job search skills, how to become a judge or go in-house, tips for achieving work-life balance, how to build and manage a law practice, and so forth. Some associations also can help you build your practice through referral services where potential clients connect to lawyers with relevant legal skills.
Sometimes involvement in a professional organization gives you an immediate stamp of approval in the eyes of potential clients or employers because many such organizations have bylaws and an ethics policy that sets industry-wide expectations for best business practices. Even if the organization doesn’t have formal standards, members learn what is considered the gold standard in the industry. Merely listing your association membership and activities on your resume might impress current or future employers as it shows that you are dedicated to staying current and connected in the profession.
Strength in numbers
Large national-level professional organizations usually have committees that track federal and state legislative developments that impact their particular industry and business. By virtue of their size, they wield legislative clout. They advocate for the profession and notify members about how to prepare for any change. You gain a competitive advantage by keeping up with the newest developments and trends.
Bar associations also often negotiate with vendors to provide discounts on products and services used by members of the profession like health insurance, malpractice insurance, office supplies, and postal services. Many also offer free or discounted CLE programs, legal research tools, case law updates and databases, and legal form templates. The American Bar Association even offers discounts on hotels, rental cars, and clothing stores. Bar association members can more than recoup their membership dues by taking advantage of these deals.
The human side
In addition to all of the professional benefits discussed above, being a bar junkie has many personal advantages. Cultivating camaraderie with a group of compatible colleagues who understand the stresses of the profession provides a source of holistic support. You can let off steam, find a sympathetic ear, brainstorm, share your challenges and triumphs, seek advice, and support and help one another in reaching your professional goals. You also might make some good friends who inspire, reenergize, and motivate you to be the best person and best lawyer you can be.
Find your tribe
With so many bar associations and professional organizations to choose from, how do you select which will be most beneficial for you? A quick search online for organizations in your area will yield a list of national, state, local, and specialty bars emphasizing memberships for various areas of practice, or gender or ethnic groups. Start the selection process by evaluating the primary objective(s) of each organization. Are their stated objectives aligned with yours? Look also at their upcoming events. Are they well-planned, properly executed, and of interest and value to you? Look for an annual organization-wide event where you can meet colleagues from across the country in addition to local meetings where you can build relationships and your reputation through regular and repeated contact.
Give to get
As with just about anything, you get back what you put into it. To receive maximum benefits of bar association membership, you need to fully engage. Get actively involved and you will reap short- and long-term career and personal benefits. You will find it is time well spent.