Earlier this week, Carolyn Elefant questioned the value of joining bar associations. Particularly their value in generating business for solo and small firm practitioners. Elefant found bar associations lacking in regards to business development, and generally seemed sour on participation in bar associations for smaller firms. Though she did note a few exceptions:
“I’m not suggesting that solos and smalls steer clear of bar membership entirely; after all, bar associations provide a myriad of practice benefits including substantive information on practice trends, affordable continuing legal education (CLE), and advice on starting and running a law practice.”
While I’m inclined to agree with Elefant regarding the operation of small firms most of the time, in this instance, I have to disagree….
Largely speaking, I think it’s unwise to attempt to paint all bar associations with a broad brush. The ABA is as far removed from a local bar association as can be. The ABA can be an ungainly, bureaucratic institution to be sure, but it also attempts to function in the way it sees best for its members. While largely the purview of Big Law, I’ve served on ABA committees composed of Big Law, solos and small firm practitioners, and never once have I felt out of place or ostracized. Sure, the ABA can be difficult to navigate and penetrate but the same can be said for any large organization.
Regarding Elefant’s castigation of local bar associations, in contrast, I’ve had nothing but positive experiences from joining my local bar association. Again, I think this is by virtue of local bar associations varying wildly in quality. Bar associations are only as good as their staff and the effort and time that their members put into the bar association. If a local bar association is comprised of lawyers who give it short shrift and treat it as a glorified drinking club, it is unlikely they are ever going to get much out of it. If the lawyers who comprise the bar treat it with the same diligence and attention they give to their work, then it is likely to be that much more useful to its members.
While some of the uses of bar associations are affordable CLEs and identifying practice trends, their real value is in fostering relationships between their members. Bar associations are essentially a lawyer’s professional community. And as I have noted before, if you invest in your community, your community will invest in you. By joining a local bar association and dedicating real time and effort to it, you can begin to develop the relationships you need in order to thrive as a small firm practitioner.
Local bar associations also help cultivate camaraderie and professional respect. For example, last week was my local bar association’s Bench & Bar retreat. A couple days at a golf resort with hundreds of lawyers and judges. During this time I had the opportunity to speak with dozens of lawyers I would have never met otherwise. Many of whom I have subsequently had lunch or coffee with and now have a real relationship. But one interaction in particular stood out.
The week prior to the event, I had spent most of the day in a deposition in a long-running case. At the retreat, I ran into a lawyer who was at the deposition on the opposite side of the case from us. The other lawyer and I immediately struck up a conversation, completely unrelated to the case. Over the course of the evening, we had a couple drinks together, talked about sports, our neighborhoods, and all sorts of things that had nothing to do with us being in a adversarial relationship in our professional lives. Because we were members of the same bar, we were able to just be two guys hanging out for a day. The value of this cannot be discounted.
Some day the present case will end and we will no longer be adversaries. Perhaps I’ll refer a case to him. Perhaps he’ll suggest me to another lawyer for a particular type of matter. Building reputations and extending professional courtesy is difficult if you don’t know any other lawyers in town. And the easiest way to get to know other lawyers is to join your local bar association. But perhaps most importantly, developing such relationships with other lawyers can be beneficial to the most important people: your clients.
As anyone who has been a lawyer for even a short period of time knows, things often go sideways in a case. You get sick, a witness is out of town, you get double-booked for hearings on the same day, there is a last minute emergency in another case that is going to prevent you from producing discovery on schedule. All of these things can affect your client’s case. In these situations, you are often at the mercy of opposing counsel and relying on them to extend you time and professional courtesy to deal with such situations. This is where being a member of your local bar, nurturing relationships with a myriad of lawyers over a long period of time, and developing a reputation can provide real dividends to your clients.
If you are an unknown quantity to a lawyer on the other side of a case, they may be reluctant to extend you patience or time. Perhaps they even view you with contempt. But if opposing counsel knows you, either through interactions at the bar or even just through your reputation, they are much more likely to extend you professional courtesy and attempt to work with you on a case. And that’s easily worth a couple hundred dollars a year.
Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.