Conventional wisdom says that solos and smalls should join a bar association — either the American Bar Association, a state or local bar, or a practice-specific bar (such as an association of telecommunications or criminal defense or real estate lawyers) — as a way to generate clients. Here’s but one recent article that recommends pounding the pavement at bar events to find clients.
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. But if lawyers think that they’ll find business through bar membership, most are sure to be disappointed….
That bars don’t help lawyers find clients shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, who do you meet at bar events but other lawyers? For some lawyers — such as those who handle attorney malpractice or grievances or provide freelance or per diem services — meeting other lawyers makes sense. But most solos and smalls are far better off joining organizations that allow them to interact directly with their target clients rather than trying to obtain business indirectly by meeting other lawyers.
But there are other reasons that bar-association networking doesn’t work for solo and small firm lawyers. For starters, in order to generate bar business, solos and smalls need to build a reputation within the bar community. One way is to participate on bar committees — but they’re often dominated by large firms or well-connected attorneys. And even if solos could snag a decent committee appointment, most lack the time and resources to devote to the interminable planning phone calls or shepherding a speaking event through nine circles of hell er, bureaucracy common to most bars.
Another opportunity to gain exposure within a bar association is to offer a CLE. Here again, many bar association sponsored panels are packed with insiders. But even if a solo has an opportunity to speak, unless the topic is highly specialized, the audience participants — some of whom may be direct competitors — are likely to take the content of the presentation and use it themselves rather than referring the case to the presenter. Although I know numerous attorneys who present at CLEs, I’m hard pressed to come up with any who’ve spoken about a substantive topic (as opposed to marketing or social media) and actually attracted business.
Rather than flail as a small fish in a tiny pond of sharks, solos and smalls should seek out blue oceans where their skills are in demand. For example, if you’re a small business lawyer, join a Meet Up Group for entrepreneurs and volunteer to give a talk, or seek appointment to a town zoning or advisory board (I won’t suggest Chamber of Commerce, which is likely to be infiltrated with lawyers) where you can show off your knowledge by volunteering to research legal issues about proposed regulations or legislation. If you focus on family law, consider organizations for financial planners, psychiatrists, or parenting groups, where you’re likely to be one of just a few attorneys so you won’t have to compete for referrals.
Or, if you enjoy hanging around with other lawyers or remain convinced of business potential of meeting other lawyers, then why not start your own group? That way, you can control who joins the group and remain at the center of the action rather than on the outskirts. One of my colleagues, David Abeshouse, co-founded the New York-metro area Attorney Round Table, which has been a source of referrals and friendships for participating members.
Lack of referral potential shouldn’t necessarily bar lawyers from joining bar associations as many do offer other resources. But if it’s referrals that you seek, you’re best off associating elsewhere.
Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.