Bar associations work hard to show young lawyers the benefits of membership

Madison County Bar Association President Steve Smith was new to the legal profession nearly 40 years ago when he attended his first bar association event.

He recalled an older attorney coming up to him, telling him the law was a horrible profession and asking him why he wanted to be a lawyer. Smith was angry and even now remains bewildered why a fellow attorney would say something like that to a younger colleague.

Today it would be unlikely for the new generation of lawyers to have such an encounter at a bar association function. These organizations are working hard to welcome, attract and retain the young professionals because this new group shows little inclination to joining. Bar associations, like associations in different industries, are seeing millennials shy away from being part of an organized group.

A white paper published this year by Association Laboratory Inc. examined the decline in membership among young professionals, including attorneys, ages 21-34.

The study found there are both financial and philosophical barriers keeping millennials from being a part of an organization. Often the cost of membership is too much for young professionals who have less money available for discretionary spending. In addition, the associations are not always providing a culture of engagement and value that appeal to the newest generation in the workforce.

John Trimble, president of the Indianapolis Bar Association, has seen this shift in membership.

He joined while he was still in law school and, at that time, he estimated 80 to 90 percent of the attorneys were joining bar associations because it was the “right thing to do.” Joining the local, state and national bars was important for him as a lawyer practicing in Indiana and the United States, he said.

Currently only about 20 percent are joining the bar associations for altruistic reasons, said Trimble, partner at Lewis Wagner LLP. The rest join because they see membership as giving them something they would not have otherwise.

Smith, of Smith Carrillo & Reeder, joined the bar association to build relationships with other lawyers. Having a personal connection gives him a ready supply of attorneys he can call and ask for help. Most importantly, belonging gives him the camaraderie he enjoys.

Person to person

The Indiana State Bar Association has seen a gradual decline in membership among young lawyers for the past few years, according to Susan Jacobs, associate executive director. ISBA partly attributes the decline in membership to the new reality of the legal profession – less people are graduating from law school and graduates are having difficulty finding employment that requires a J.D.

Still, the net loss for the statewide organization has been less than 100 new lawyers who have been practicing for no more than six years. Jacobs said the circumstances have created a revolving door of young lawyers at the association as some leave because they either do not find jobs or move out of state while a fresh crop of young lawyers arrives through the admission ceremony every year.

A sampling of local bar associations around the state shows many are not seeing a decline in young lawyer membership. Leaders of the bar associations in Lake, Marion, Monroe and Tippecanoe counties say they have not experienced any notable decrease but they all pointed out their associations have many activities targeting new attorneys.

The free membership to newly admitted lawyers adds to the Marion County Bar Association’s membership rolls every year but as President-Elect Roxana Bell explained, getting the attorneys involved is essential. Once they see the personal and professional benefits, they are more likely to remain as a member.

A key to convincing them to be active in the organization is “the ask,” said Bell, an associate at Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. Having a member invite them to a social function or to join a community service event gives the young lawyers the feeling that someone cares whether they show up.

Being so close to the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, the Monroe County Bar Association does not have much trouble attracting newly minted lawyers, according to President Greg Bullman.

As a way to keep members, Bullman said the bar association offers a special perk of providing the attorneys space to advertise on its website. Local residents needing legal assistance are often referred to the association’s website so lawyers who list their practice area and contact information can get new clients.

Bar association leaders readily tout the services and activities they have for members. Many try to meet the professional needs of all the attorneys by offering continuing legal education programs. Through civic opportunities coordinated by the associations, members can volunteer for community projects.

The social events, parties and informal gatherings may be the most important. William Emerick, president of the Tippecanoe County Bar Association, pointed out the irony of modern times that while people can reach just about anyone through social media and mobile devices, they are still disconnected from each other. A bar association function provides attorneys with a chance to see and interact with each other face-to-face.


nonjoiners-698-110415-15col.jpg Young lawyers participate in a team-building exercise at a September 2015 retreat at the Waycross Conference Center for the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Bar Leader Series. (Photo submitted)

Barriers to joining

Matthew Neumann, associate at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP, did not join a bar association when he began practicing in 2010.

He focused on his heavy workload and logged many hours but then, he said, he came up for air and realized much of his interaction with other attorneys was mostly in a litigation setting. And he could not ask his courtroom opponents to have a beer or hang out.

Neumann joined the Indy Bar and is now the president of the Young Lawyers Division. He has formed friendships with attorneys from other practice areas and helped plan many social, educational and community service events.

If he had not joined, he said he would have missed the opportunity to meet new people and develop his leadership skills.

“I think the more active role you take, the more investment you put in, the more you will get out of it,” Neumann said of bar membership.

Yet even when they want to join, new attorneys face the obstacle of costs. If their employer pays for the membership, they are more likely to participate but many firms have cut back of such expenditures, Trimble said.

Firms will get a return on their investment, Trimble asserted. In a bar association, young lawyers will have opportunities for public speaking and holding leadership positions. The attorneys will then call upon the skills gained through these experiences to build their client base.

As a young lawyer in Munster, Jacquelyn Pillar had peers who did not join bar associations after graduation. However, they eventually became members as they advanced in their careers and saw so many of their colleagues participating in events at the Lake County Bar Association.

For young lawyers, getting involved early helps them meet the experienced lawyers in town and begin building their network of colleagues, said Pillar, partner at Crist Sears & Zic LLP. Then when they need help or get lost in the courthouse, the new attorneys will see a face they recognize and be able to ask for assistance.

As the current president of the Lake County Bar Association, Pillar has put an emphasis on getting members more involved in the organization’s activities. She has worked to bring in new faces and new ideas.

“I really enjoy it,” she said of belonging to the bar association. “Our members consist of good people trying to do good things.”•

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