Business 101: 10 Tips to Make Your Bar Association Dues Work For You
Article Date: Monday, March 28, 2011
Written By: Erik Mazzone
To begin, I have a confession. Before I started working at my bar association, I was not an active member. I was a member, off and on, but an indifferent one. Eventually, after several years of practice, I let my membership lapse. I was not making much use of my membership and I frankly didn’t see what I was getting out of it.
Having now worked at the same association for a couple of years, I can say with all sincerity: if you take advantage of what your association has to offer, there is no more cost effective tool for building or improving your career in the law. If I had known as a young lawyer what I now know about how to leverage bar association membership, I would have done things differently. I wish I could whisper to that younger me why I ought to be involved with the bar association and just how easy it is to do.
I would also tell him to buy and hold Google stock and not buy that used Saab, but that is neither here nor there.
Before I launch into the 10 tips for getting more out of your bar association dues, I want to note that these tips are geared entirely toward helping you use your association to build a more successful legal career – maybe to you that means making more money or winning an election to become judge or making a lateral move into a more prestigious law firm. Whatever more successful means to you, my point is that these tips are about using your bar association to help you achieve the things you want in your career.
To be sure, there are lots of altruistic, noble reasons to get involved with your bar association: to improve the image of the profession, to increase access to justice, to take part in the community of a learned profession. Those would be great topics for another author and another article.
Today, let’s just focus on 10 things you can do to make your bar association dues work for you:
1. Join a Section
Most large bar associations are divided into sections representing the various practice areas or topics of interest for lawyers, such as law practice management. Your bar association staff will tell you, if you ask, lots of benefits of belonging to a section: access to an email listserv or discussion board, a subscription to a section newsletter, etc.
Here are three things they are unlikely to tell you, and they are among the most important benefits of section membership: a) you can quickly build relationships with people who do the same kind of work you do, so you can build your referral source network; b) you will make contacts who can act as sounding boards or mentors, which is particularly useful if you are a solo practitioner; and c) it lays out a straight path into bar association leadership. Join a section, get on the section council, become chair, meet the volunteer lawyers who are running your association – next thing you know you are on the leadership track. Having a leadership position in a bar association is impressive to clients and raises your reputation among colleagues, and it all starts with joining a section.
2. Write an Article for a Bar Publication
Whether your goal is a law practice whose client base is fueled by referrals or a judicial appointment or a successful electoral campaign, achievement of this order requires two things: a) lots of the right people need to know who you are; and b) those people need to think you are worthy of their referral/appointment/vote/job offer/fill in the blank.
One great way to help with both of these requirements is to write an article for a publication. It could be a section newsletter or a bar-wide magazine or bar-based blog. All you need to do is decide who is the right audience for your article and then find which publication addresses that audience. Most bar-based publications are starved for decent articles – take your time, write a great article and then offer it to whoever controls the publication. Before you know it, lawyers across the state are reading what you have to say on whatever topic you decided to say it.
3. Go to the Annual Meeting
There are lots of reasons not to go to your bar’s annual meeting: it’s expensive, it’s far away, it’s time you can ill afford away from the office, etc. There is, however, one really good reason to go to your bar’s annual meeting: it is the time and place where you are going to find the highest concentration of heavy hitters in your state, all of whom are relaxing and socializing. You know who the heavy hitters are – the lawyers with the deepest rolodexes, best clients, and most burnished reputations. They are the ones who have the time and money to invest in a networking event like the annual meeting.
Lawyers and judges you could never get to return your phone call will be freely available at cocktail receptions, dinners and golf outings. Law practice is a relationship-based business; how much would it be worth to your career, your firm, to build a rolodex of the most successful lawyers in your state? What kind of referrals and opportunities could those kinds of folks provide? Forget about just this year, how about over the next 10 years?
Go to the annual meeting. Socialize. Make friends. Collect and hand out business cards. You may be playing a round of golf with a future Senator, Governor or Chief Justice.
4. Get Active on a LISTSERV
Now that you’ve joined a section, it is time to get active. One of the easiest ways to do that is to subscribe to the LISTSERV (or discussion board) and get actively involved. This is the place where the lawyers who do what you do are talking about the pressing issues of the day.
Not only will you likely learn a lot you didn’t know from some very smart lawyers, but your participation will serve to remind them that you exist so when they have a referral, your name is at the top of mind. It costs almost nothing, can be done in off hours from a smart phone, and the potential ROI is enormous. Sign up and start posting.
5. Volunteer for a Pro Bono Project
I know, I promised all 10 tips were going to be about helping you to be more successful and now I am yammering on about pro bono. This is not bait and switch – your participation in a pro bono project can really boost your practice. (I’m using pro bono broadly here to refer to any publicly beneficial project from building houses to answering a legal hotline.)
Here’s what’s great about a pro bono project: it operates like a team building exercise for the bar association. It takes people from very different practices, locations, experience levels, and throws them into a shared exercise where most of the normal rules don’t apply.
You may find yourself helping the managing partner of an 1,000 lawyer firm with something that is simple to you but brand new and difficult to her. Those kinds of interactions foster strong and lasting relationships. That’s why companies spend so much money doing team building – to build strong relationships.
Oh, also, do some pro bono because it makes the world a better place and you a better person. There, I said it.
6. Use Your Free Research Tool
Many bar associations offer their members access to a free legal research tool. In my bar, we use Casemaker and it consistently ranks as one of the benefits of membership our members really appreciate. Using a free research tool can dramatically cut the costs incurred in your legal research. Ask the membership department at your bar association if you have a free research tool available to you and take the time to get to know it and use it.
7. Work the Discount on CLE
A lot of bar associations offer members a discounted rate on CLE. If you take all of your required credit hours through your bar’s CLE program, this discount alone can pay for your membership dues. Aside from the cost savings, CLE programs are an under-utilized networking opportunity. Take advantage of the breaks and lunch to meet somebody new, exchange cards and broaden your network.
If you met one new person for each credit hour of CLE you take, at the end of the year you will have added 12 new people to your network. At the end of the decade it will be 120. Just from CLE programs. Best of all, all of the other attendees need to broaden their networks, too, so it is a win-win.
8. Sign Up for the Lawyer Referral Service
If your bar has a lawyer referral service, do yourself a favor and sign up. It is a cost-effective way to generate potential clients, and if you have been stuck in the habit of offering free initial consultations, having a steady stream of new, paying consults will help break you of the habit.
If you are having trouble getting business in the door, this is a worthwhile expenditure of time and money. The goal, of course, is to have a practice that runs on referrals alone, but until you get there, take advantage of the help that is available.
9. Leverage Your Affinity Partnerships
Chances are that your bar association has special relationships set up with several different companies to provide discounts to members. It might be for office supplies or online backup or credit card processing. In my bar, we call these relationships “affinity partnerships.”
If you are not currently taking advantage of the full suite of affinity partnerships available, call your membership department to find out what you are missing. If you’d like to see affinity partnerships that your bar does not currently support, make the suggestion to the membership department. Your bar is the business of helping you to succeed in your business. Tell them what you need.
10. Utilize Your Practice Management Advisor
Many bars have a professional on staff called a practice management advisor, or PMA. Typically, a PMA is a former practicing attorney or law firm staff member who now works full time for the members of his or her bar association, helping them with issues of law practice management.
This is my job, and I frequently describe it to people by saying I am a free management consultant for the members of my bar association. If your association has a PMA on staff, take the time to meet that person and find out how they can help you in your practice. That’s what they’re there for.
If you are thinking how self-serving it was of me to end this article with a plug for my own services, you’re right – but then again, I’m just using Tip #2 above. At least I practice what I preach!
Erik Mazzone is the Director of the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association. When he is not expounding on the virtues of bar association membership, he can most likely be found hunched over his computer yelling at his fantasy football team. He can be reached through his blog, www.lawpracticematters.com.
Views and opinions expressed in articles published herein are the authors' only and are not to be attributed to this newsletter, the section, or the NCBA unless expressly stated. Authors are responsible for the accuracy of all citations and quotations.