I am a member of the American Bar Association, Pennsylvania Bar Association, and the Washington County Bar Association. I also participate in niche organizations focused on my practice area. Between conference calls, virtual meetings, and multi-day conferences, staying active in so many organizations can be a part time job in and of itself. But the way to get the most out of bar associations is to become active and not just read your monthly newsletters. But is the time and monetary investment worth it for solos and small firm lawyers?
When we discuss fledgling membership numbers, many senior bar association members explain that when they joined, you joined the ABA and your local bar because that’s what everyone did. It wasn’t a question of value. The bar association was a collegial environment. A place to meet your opponent from the courthouse last week and share a drink together. One senior lawyer told me that my local bar association, circa 1950, only had a handful of members. They met twice a month on Mondays down at a local watering hole. That’s where cases got worked out.
For solos and small firms, this is one of the greatest values that a local bar can offer. The opportunity for regular gatherings with lawyers you will see on a frequent basis can help you immediately in your practice. Membership can help solos and small firm lawyers find mentors, get referrals for cases, and make new lawyer friends.
This benefit goes beyond networking. When you first join, it can feel like networking. You’re talking to everyone in the room and handing out a lot of business cards. But in my experience, if you stay active, the relationships grow beyond that.
In bigger metropolitan areas, this is not an issue. But I practice in some rural counties. And in those counties, many clients, and even fellow attorneys, are surprised that I drive from one county to another to practice. People are genuinely surprised that the public defender’s office would bring in an “out of county” lawyer to handle a case. By joining the local bar I was able to dissipate some complaints that I was some out of town lawyer coming in to take work from local attorneys. It also put some clients at ease to know that I practice regularly in the county.
Where the local bar association’s strength is its access to other local lawyers, the larger bar associations can offer significant discounts on relevant vendors. For example, my practice management software of choice, MyCase, offers a discount to ABA members. The discount I enjoy pretty much pays for my ABA dues. I know Clio has a similar offer with my state bar association.
But these discounts can also include things like health insurance, malpractice insurance, office supplies, travel costs, and so on. The vendor discounts are the one benefit to paper membership in a bar association. By evaluating which vendors you use regularly and contacting your state bar office (or the ABA) solos and small firms can save a lot of money (or time). Sam pointed out in an earlier post that these vendor benefits alone aren’t enough to stick around, and I agree. But they are a nice plus to a membership.
If you’re active in a bar association, no doubt you’ve been solicited to write something for a newsletter, or put on a CLE. This is a terrific way to showcase your knowledge in an area, especially if you have a niche practice that others might find interesting. Newsletters, website articles, and podcasts are what the bar association refers to as “member benefits.” In most bars, the goal is to produce tangible member benefits so people keep coming back.
To be truly active in a bar association, like any organization, requires a solid time commitment. As you move up in the ranks, the time commitment goes up. At the ABA level I often notice that many of the big leaders are from huge firms. They’re able to take significant amounts of time off because they can make up any dip in business the following year. But in a small firm or as a solo, a significant dip in income means not eating, or not paying the bills.
As your involvement increases, you’ll also likely be asked to attend various conferences. These can be a huge time suck. Often held during the week, conferences can last three, four, or even five days. And sure, we live in the future so we can all get work done from out of town. But if you’re attending a conference, chances are you won’t hit your usual productivity goals for the week.
Going to the aforementioned conferences can get very expensive. For one example, the ABA Section of Litigation Annual Conference costs $500 just to attend. That’s on top of dues for the ABA, and separate Section dues. Then there are local bar dues, state bar dues, committee bar dues, trade association dues, etc. When those membership fees come out of pocket instead of out of a firm’s expense account, they can be much more imposing.
As you might guess from my bar association involvement, I think they’re worth the time and money. Active participation is a long-term investment. I’m fostering these relationships now with hopes that I may see some professional advantage in the future. But even if I don’t, the relationships I’ve made are already invaluable. Especially with my local bar, I’ve been able to form friendships with attorneys, and it has helped my practice significantly.
That being said, the workload and time commitment is sometimes tough to handle. If I didn’t have such an understanding partner, I would not be able to stay as active as I am. And as the practice grows, it’s likely that my work will have to taper off. But only time will tell.