Even In An Online Age, Bar and Professional Associations Are More Relevant To Marketing Than We’d Like to Admit

Longtime readers of this blog know that I have a love-hate (or more accurately, a friend/frenemy) relationship with bar and professional associations.  To be clear, my beef isn’t about the services provided to solos: in the past decade since I’ve started this blog, the bars have stepped up – and I’ve watched as the initially scant offerings grew into a steady and never-ending stream of content . Rather, I simply lack the patience for the endless levels of bureaucracy, childish shenanigans and politics inherent in most bar associations. In many associations, just running for an entry level office requires a nomination by a member followed by approval by a committee followed by an election. Scheduling a brown bag lunch involves vetting dozens of friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend speaker suggestions and adopting the same format (the panel) over and over and over again. Even volunteering for a committee requires endless and persistent emails to frequently unresponsive participants or officers.

Because my time is limited – and because when I’m on a committee I want to do more than sit as a passive member so that I can put a notch on my belt — I’ve often gone off in my own direction. I’ve started a blog, organized my own webinars and occasional get-togethers – and advised others to do the same. Yet I wonder whether my impatience has cost me opportunities – because as much as those of us out here in the blogosphere hate to admit, bar associations — including the ABA, state and local associations as well as subject or demographic specific associations like NACBA or Woman’s Bar Association — for all their foibles, are still relevant and important sources of connections and business.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the resumes of the solos and smalls who have built sustainable solo practices beyond just one person or just two or three years. I’m willing to bet that most of them have done some significant legwork on bar committees that has lead to increased visibility and referrals (if you’re a solo who’s benefited from association work, give us a shout out in the comment section).  Even Tom Goldstein of SCOTUS Blog and a Supreme Court niche-practice who is a bootstraps kind of guy boasts a couple of years of ABA committee service on his resume.

Changing a bar association from within also works better than complaining about it (as I often do). These days, virtual law firms are gaining widespread acceptance – due largely in my view, to persistent efforts by Elawering Task Force  by e-lawyers like Richard Granat and Stephanie Kimbro to force change from within.

Likewise – (and almost counter-intuitively given the conservative predilections of many associations), many of today’s 21st century legal technology companies  – like Clio or Fastcase have grown their user base by partnering with bar associations and participating in their activities. I know that my book, Solo by Choice while quite popular and a solid seller, has always faced an uphill battle since many state bar associations won’t publicize it because it is not an ABA or association publication.

Maybe the legal profession is disrupting but it’s not dead yet – and wounded animals are always the most dangerous.  Which means that bar associations and disciplinary committees will continue to devise ways to fend off competitors and will live to see many more days.

Meanwhile, blogs and social media and self-organized meet-ups may level the playing field by making networking more accessible and less expensive and opening up new opportunities.  But these new tools don’t eliminate the field entirely in the way that for example, Netflix killed the brick-and-mortar video store.  Rather, social media and tech either enable us to play on the same field more competitively (through cloud-based practice management and mobile devices) so we can attract lower-budget clients or compete on smaller fields (like niche practices or VLOs).  Question is, are those the venues where you want to play ball forever?

Because in contrast to Netflix — which convinced consumers to download or mail away for movies instead of picking them up at the local store– neither lawyers, nor consumers of legal services have come that far. Lawyers still generate business from referrals from other lawyers. Clients still call bar referral services to find lawyers (even though most of the referral sites are impossible to find or navigate).  Courts still turn to bar associations for judicial nominations. And hundreds of thousands of lawyers still use bar associations as their primary source for information, CLE and networking. And while the bars as the central focus of the legal community has diminished over time, they will continue to exert significant influence at least for the next few decades.  I don’t think that the world will remain this way forever, and I don’t like it – (I’ve spent at least a decade trying to change it or run from it). But welcome to the world as it is today. Reality often bites.

So what does the current state of the legal market and legal profession mean for today’s lawyers starting out? Basically this:  you’ve got at least a decade, maybe more of life as we know it in the law — so don’t be too quick or impatient to eschew traditional forms of networking through bar associations. Association work isn’t exciting or sexy – and you’ll have to put on your subservient-shoes and check your ego at the door as you eagerly volunteer for a clunky job like writing minutes. But this kind of involvement remains a sure-fire way to build presence and credibility that will open doors and grow your firm in mainstream markets.  Plus, you might help to lay the foundation for more lasting reforms in the profession. Finally, those old guys and gals in the bar association hierarchy won’t be around forever – and eventually, they may look to find successors to take over their practices or move them into the future. Some lawyers may have the prescience to look for buyers on Craigslist but others are likely to draw on the pool of lawyers they’ve gotten to know – where else? – through bar work.

By all means, don’t ignore social media and blogging and do-it-yourself events – at the very least, those skills will serve you well in organized groups and can open doors and create opportunities as I’ve done in my practice.  But as I’ve learned from almost 25 years of practice, the engine of change in this profession grinds as slowly as the wheels of justice – and if lawyers only plan for tomorrow while ignoring the current reality of where the profession stands today, they may not be able to keep the lights on until the future gets here. As Malcolm Gladwell has observed, sometimes first is worst.