Working on a bar association committee or project is a good way to get leadership experience quickly. The reason is simple: because of the number and variety of bar associations (the ABA, state, city/county, area-of-practice, group affiliations, etc.) and the number and variety of sections and committees within each, leadership opportunities are numerous.
Why should you consider bar involvement?
1. To grow your professional network. Having a broad group of colleagues will prove useful over the span of your career in ways you probably can’t even imagine right now. Networks are useful if you need co-counsel on a case, if you’re conflicted out and want to refer a client to someone in whom you have confidence, if you’d like to take a deposition in an office in a distant city, if you’re looking for a new position, on and on and on.
2. To contribute to the profession. The work produced by each group will vary, but you may have an opportunity to contribute to a report studying the challenges faced by women attorneys of color, the impact of multiple tiers of partners, or the latest revision to substantive or procedural rules of practice. You can use your skills and develop them further through this work.
3. To contribute to society in general. Some groups will focus on work that directly impacts individuals, such as writing a report and passing a policy supporting or objecting to proposals relating to privacy, public health, and more. Although bar associations don’t have lawmaking authority, some have quite a bit of clout. You could potentially even end up testifying before Congress on behalf of a bar group.
4. To advance your business development goals. If your practice is supported by referrals by other lawyers, or if it’s in an area that often requires involvement by a lot of lawyers, bar associations can create the opportunity for you to become known by your potential referral sources.
5. Because it’s fun. When you find a group that’s a good fit for you, networking and conferences become a time to reconnect with friends and accomplish something of professional benefit. That’s a good deal!
So, how do you get started?
1. Identify the bar group or groups that might be a good fit for you based on your goals and interests. Do you want to be involved with a local group or a national group? (If you’re looking to create a referral network, this is probably the #1 question you’ll need to answer.) Is your primary interest in a subject area, or would you be happy working in a substantive subcommittee of a non-practice-based group? (For patent law, for example, you might join the American Intellectual Property Law Association, or you might join the ABA or a state bar and seek involvement with an IP law section.)
2. Next, identify a subgroup of that bar that you find interesting. Look through the sections, committees and subcommittees, or the list of projects that the group maintains. Your goal is to identify a small working group that will be a good fit for your skills, your interest, and your goals — in that order.
3. Bar association working groups almost always need help. Perhaps you’re already a passive member of a bar group, receiving information and maybe attending CLE programs. To reap the benefit of membership, you must be active. Decide how much time you have available and what kind of assistance you’d like to offer. You may be able to get a feel for current projects from the group’s website.
4. Contact the leader of the subgroup you’d like to join and volunteer. For all but the most prestigious groups, I can almost guarantee that a committee chair’s favorite words to hear are, “I’d like to help!” Find out how you can make a contribution. Look for something fairly short-term, so you aren’t boxed in and you can prove yourself quickly, and do a great job.
5. Attend the business meetings of your selected group. Most bar associations meet at least annually, and those who attend are the leaders. If you want to become a leader, meet them. Learn more about the group’s activity, who’s involved, what its history is, and how things operate. Ask about the leadership track — how might you become a committee leader, a Section leader, or an association leader? Contribute to the conversation and volunteer where appropriate. Show your interest and your ability.
6. Once you’ve taken on a few projects and done well, you will start to advance. Depending on the group, you can probably expect to become a subcommittee vice chair (or some equivalent title) within a couple of years, and sometimes much faster. Should you choose to advance in leadership, you’ll know much more about how to do so in your selected group; if not, you can probably continue at your current level of involvement and accrue additional benefits.
Julie A. Fleming, J.D., A.C.C. has coached countless lawyers, has practiced law for over 15 years, speaks for bar associations and law firms, and publishes a weekly email newsletter.