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Eye on the Profession: Young lawyers, join a bar. Firms, support them

April 4, 2018

TrimbleWhen I was a law student and a new lawyer, my law firm signed me up for the Indianapolis Bar Association, the Indiana State Bar Association, the American Bar Association, and others. The firm made it very clear to me that I was a lawyer; these associations represented our profession; and, it was my duty to belong to each of them. (Most importantly, I was ordered to play in the IndyBar softball and basketball leagues and to bring back championship trophies.) Little did I know that I would also bring back friendships that have lasted a lifetime. I also had no idea that my softball, basketball, and bar committee acquaintances would grow up to be judges, justices, general counsel, business owners, elected officials, and my law partners. It never occurred to me that many of those newfound friends would be some of the best sources of business referrals that I have had in my legal career. It also never occurred to me that I might one day lead one or more of the bar associations I joined.

One of the joys of my legal career is that I get the opportunity to travel the US and Canada providing consulting and strategic planning to bar associations of all sizes. In many instances my consultation is preceded by targeted surveys to bar members to find out why they joined the association, why they remain a member, and what they like the most and the least about their association memberships. Interestingly, there remain a small number of respondents (less than 10 percent) who cite “duty to the profession” as a reason for joining. Invariably, the members who do cite duty as a reason for joining and remaining, are among the oldest members of their associations. An equally small number of more senior members will also state that they joined because “someone asked me” or “my firm encouraged me to join.” Thirty years ago, these reasons for joining would have been the majority response to a survey.

The most disturbing trend being seen by bar associations of all sizes across the country is that younger lawyers are simply not joining at all. While decreasing law school enrollment has already resulted in a smaller pool of new lawyers emerging from law school, the number of young lawyers joining voluntary bar associations is alarmingly low — in many instances, lower than 20 percent. There are numerous reasons, but the standard ones are, “Young people are not joiners unless they perceive that the cause is righteous.” “Young lawyers come out of law school laden with debt and cannot afford to join and be active.” “Law firms are not encouraging bar association participation, or, worse yet, they are actively discouraging it.” “Young lawyers don’t have time for the bar association because of the demand for the billable hour.” “Young lawyers don’t like face-to-face interaction with others.”

I will submit to you that as young lawyers shy away from bar association involvement, we risk having a profession of lawyers who lack social intelligence. According to leadership trainer and psychologist Dr. Ronald Riggio, in an article in Psychology Today, “social intelligence is the key to career and life success.” Dr. Riggio finds that socially intelligent people have better conversational and listening skills, greater understanding of social roles and rules, more common sense and street smarts, and greater social self-sufficiency. Every single one of these social intelligence traits can be gained and improved through active bar association involvement. All of them are traits that great lawyers will need.

Too often I have heard lawyers state that they can find nothing of value in belonging to a bar association. With all due respect, that is a statement that is prompted by ignorance of the value that is there to be found. For young lawyers, in particular, a bar association is a place to take the first small safe steps into leadership, speaking, writing, and gaining of substantive knowledge and professional credentials. Gaining social intelligence and skills on the local level is then an excellent springboard to state and national bar activities. The Young Lawyer sections of bar associations are also a great source of fun social events and a place to make new friends.

So, to the young lawyers who take the time to read this article, I challenge you. Join a bar association. Show up and volunteer. Get out of your comfort zone and meet new people. Ask to write. Ask to speak. Ask to lead. Be patient enough to give yourself the time to realize the value of belonging. Above all else, take my word for it that you and your law firm and your family will benefit from a lifetime of persistent bar association involvement. I cannot begin to predict the ways that you will benefit, but benefit you will. If your law firm will not support you, then invest in yourself. It will be worth it. If you feel that you need help in joining a bar, call me.

To my friends who run law firms and businesses that employ young lawyers … invest in them! You are penny-wise and pound-foolish if you are not supporting young lawyer membership in bar associations. If you want lawyers who will grow up to be partners who will have the social intelligence to impress and keep and obtain clients, there is no better training ground than bar associations. If you want your associates to have substantive legal credentials, then writing, speaking, and leading in bar committees is a great place to build credentials. If you want your lawyers to grow up to receive referrals from other lawyers, then they must grow up in a bar association.

Please … it is time to reverse the trend of young lawyers staying away from bar associations. We all have to reverse this trend before it is too late. #WillYouBeThere?•

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John C. Trimble (@indytrims) is a senior partner at the Indianapolis firm of Lewis Wagner LLP. He is a self-described bar association “junkie” who admits that he spends an inordinate amount of time on law practice management, judicial independence and legal profession issues. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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