I always enjoy meeting new law school grads and recently admitted lawyers. The energy, the outlook, the I’m-going-to-save-the-world mentality! And that’s before their first overly caffeinated kombucha of the day (when did break room coffee become so uncool?). I’d like to believe that I shared that same level of enthusiasm when I was first admitted nearly 30 years ago. Despite the passage of time, I still have much of that desire to be an involved lawyer. I’ve held, and continue to hold, elected or appointed positions in numerous local, state, and national bar associations, for nearly my entire career. I’m a people person. I prefer old fashioned, in-person, get-to-know-me marketing over the blind date-style of attorney-client matchmaking by faceless SEO algorithms.
I say this not to boast or to be sentimental, or as a critique of social media marketing. Rather, within the past several weeks, two events had me reminiscing about my career path and how important bar association activity has been to the growth of my practice and my ability to make the leap from firm life to solo lawyer.
First, was receiving an email invitation to a reunion of the Barrister (Young Lawyer) Board of the local bar association where I was first involved as a “baby lawyer” all those year ago. Scanning the names of the other invitees was quite the trip down memory lane. A “where are they now” sort of thing, as I realized that many of us who started together as new lawyers are now old enough to be AARP-eligible with kids who are likely about the same ages as we were when we first joined the Board.
Second, was meeting several new lawyers in my building who, upon hearing that I am in my 12th year solo, asked for my “best advice” on how to start generating enough business to position themselves to eventually make partner or, better yet, hang their own shingles. “It’s easy,” I said. “Get involved early-on with various bar associations.” I further explained that, “It’s not a matter of merely joining one, or how many you join. It’s how you leverage your membership to build a referral network.”
I don’t believe lawyers join bar associations just for the free mcle (CLA offers 18.5 hours annually!), endless solicitations for discounted accidental death and dismemberment insurance, or rental car discounts (aren’t most of us now using ride-share services?). These are neither unique nor valuable benefits when most organizations offer them.
Rather, I recommend that lawyers join bar associations as a starting place to develop a network of potential referral sources. So, just as I shared with my new lawyer friends, here are my musings on using bar engagement to build your book of business.
It begins simply enough by signing-up. Start local and don’t limit yourself to just one. Many local bar associations offer free or heavily discounted dues for first year lawyers, and your firm might even pay them. If you’re in a city as expansive as Los Angeles with overlapping geographic associations (there are many smaller city bars that fall within the same region covered by the LA County Bar Association), consider joining a few to find the one that best fits you.
Through your local bar you’ll have many opportunities to get to know the lawyers and firms that you may find yourself interacting with on occasion. Local bar associations usually offer many in-person events each month. It’s just a matter of blocking out time to attend them, even if it’s only for an after-work happy hour or meet-and-greet. Why? Because, for me, lawyers have been some of the best referral sources. We all have the pressure to keep our client pipeline full. Whether it’s a referral from someone with a different practice discipline, or who has a conflict in a matter in your practice area, or maybe who is in trial and unable to take on another matter, the growth of your practice will benefit from having a solid network of lawyers who can direct clients to you without pause or concern. For those just starting out and who don’t yet have community name recognition, you’ll have a tough time generating clients if people don’t know you exist. Lawyers refer business to those they know and trust. But, they can’t get to know you, and you them, if you only spend your days behind a desk.
Don’t limit yourself to just your local bar. Your license is good statewide, so why limit your client base to your hometown? CLA engagement has helped me to expand my network of lawyers who know, trust, and refer clients to one another, statewide. If you have the time, take it one step further and consider the ABA as a way to develop a national network of lawyers who could become referral sources for out-of-state matters or local counsel work.
Next, get involved with a committee. It does not have to be a leadership role. Just get involved. Committee participation is where members get to know one another on a more personal level through the time you’ll spend together working on bar projects and programming. Also, with respect to the CLA and the ABA, you won’t have as many opportunities for in-person networking and social gatherings as you would with your local bar. So, merely being a passive member is not enough.
I recommend joining at least two committees. One should be a substantive law committee that correlates to your practice area. The other should be something of interest that is not practice-area specific. It could be involvement with pro bono projects, work-life balance initiatives, serving on the editorial board of a publication, or learning how to utilize law office technology and practice management resources, to name a few. CLA has 18 sections and 15 smaller committees, offering something for everyone – even you!
A substantive law practice committee is a terrific way to get to know and learn from the experts and judges in your field, and to meet and develop a rapport with those who one day could be referral sources or even opposing counsel. A non-substantive law committee will give you an opportunity to pursue an interest or project that you are enthusiastic about and meet lawyers in different practice disciplines. The point is that you need to be involved so that the other members get to know you well enough to refer business.
I’m not suggesting that you serve on two committees in each association you join. That’s unrealistic even for the most dedicated of “bar junkies.” Serving your clients is still the priority. You need time for your work and for your obligations and interests outside the office. The takeaway is that bar engagement, on any level, is a wonderful way to start growing your network of potential referral sources early in your career. And if you’re in a firm that pays your dues, that is their way of encouraging your involvement in the ways I’ve mentioned.
Finally, it’s time for the fun part. Attend a conference. This is where it all comes together. It is my belief that active bar members, the ones who serve on boards and committees, make up a sizable portion of conference attendees. Or at least we’re the ones seemingly having the most fun. Section dinners, cocktail receptions, and other social functions feel less cliquey and are more enjoyable when you know people. Many conference schedules include events only open to section and committee leaders. It’s in the more relaxed atmosphere of these social events where your bar colleagues become friends. It’s where you often get to meet and know their significant others and families, and become acquainted on a more personal level. It is where the relationships you’ve cultivated from your time spent working on a committee (or two) are truly solidified. These are relationships that will continue to benefit you and your practice long after your leadership roles end.
As I commented above, these are just my musings on how getting involved with bar life early can help grow your practice and even succeed on your own. Every lawyer is different in how they practice and market themselves. What has worked for me may not be right for you. But I am always willing to talk to lawyers, regardless of how long they have been in practice, about the merits of bar engagement. You are welcome to contact me by phone (818-528-2858) or email (smayer@MayerLawLA.com). Or, better yet, find me at September’s annual meeting and introduce yourself. I’d be happy to become a familiar face and to help you get involved.
Steven M. Mayer is based in Los Angeles, and serves on the CLA Solo & Small Firm Section’s executive committee.