Reap the Benefits of a Bar Association

Reap the Benefits of a Bar Association
Glenn Lau-Kee, New York Law Journal
August 18, 2014

First, I was a law student for three years. Then I became a student of law for 37 years. After receiving my J.D. from Boston University in 1974, I began the second phase of my legal education by practicing law—a quest that both challenges and rewards.

A true legal education never stops—the raw knowledge and skills that a lawyer acquires in law school get tested, refined and absorbed in the process of practicing law. The ultimate goal is the wisdom and skill in the effective use of the law in the real world, which are acquired only through experience and a continuation of the learning process.

And I believe that there is no better way to gain this experience than by interacting with other lawyers in the context of participating in bar association work. More than that, bar association work engages a lawyer in issues beyond his or her day-to-day work, and gives a lawyer the opportunity to connect with a sense of high purpose that comes with a legal education.

It used to be that when a new lawyer joined a firm, it was expected—if not required—that the lawyer would join one or more bar associations. The partners of a firm often took an active role in this process and supported the new lawyer's participation. But, unfortunately, this is less and less the case.

It seems that there is diminishing recognition of the value that active participation in a bar association can play in the continuing development of a lawyer's skill, even beyond the continuing legal education requirements. There is often little support for the time and dues, however modest, required for bar association participation. If this erosion of support is a consequence of the practice of law becoming more like a business, it is a big mistake.

Law makes great demands on its practitioners, who must keep vigilant watch as legislative bodies crank out new laws and courts overturn existing ones. In addition, today's attorneys must contend with outside forces that are altering the profession profoundly: new technology, globalization and more cost-conscious clients.

For more than a year, the State Bar Association has been examining how law schools should prepare graduates for a rapidly changing profession. With our Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, we brought together the different perspectives of academics, practicing attorneys, judges and bar examiners in New York and elsewhere in working groups, seminars and a convocation.

We devoted the September 2013 issue of our Bar Journal as well as portions of every State Bar News to the topic. At our Annual Meeting in January, our Presidential Summit focused on "Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers" and "Supporting Today's Lawyers." In May, the Association and the New York State Judicial Institute on Professionalism in the Law sponsored a day-long Convocation on "The Coming Changes to Legal Education: Ensuring Professional Values."

Our standing Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar is currently co-chaired by Eileen Millett (Epstein Becker & Green) and Touro Law School Dean Patricia Salkin.

The committee's debates about how to make attorneys "practice ready," for example, have helped to identify ways that the State Bar Association can contribute to the professional development of future attorneys, newly- admitted attorneys and all practicing attorneys.

Law Students

"Law schools should serve law students, not professors or the practicing bar, but law students," said Rebecca Love Kourlis, former Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, who delivered the keynote address at the May Convocation. She now directs the Institute for the Advancement of the Legal System.

The first step toward serving law students, she suggests: "Figure out what law students need to learn to be successful lawyers. Begin with what they need to know at the end of law school. What a concept!"

That's an area where the 75,000-member New York State Bar Association can offer expertise. Our members know what it takes to be a successful lawyer. This fall, we will unveil a pilot program for students at selected law schools. It will provide free membership to the State Bar; access to our publications, practice-area sections and online communities; networking, coaching and mentoring opportunities; programs on demystifying the bar exam, alternative careers and other topics; and debt consolidation.

Newly-Admitted Attorneys

The debate over how to create "practice ready" attorneys hinges on who should bear the responsibility: law schools or employers.

In recent years, law firms have been less willing to train newly-minted attorneys, because clients object to subsidizing the costs. The firms argue that the law schools should instill their graduates with more practical skills. However, clinics and other forms of experiential learning are expensive, contributing to law school tuition costs and the debt load of graduates.

Both law schools and employers can play critical roles in developing "practice ready" attorneys. The law schools are better positioned to teach general skills, such as how to take a deposition, while the employers can better focus on skills unique to practice areas.

Additionally, the State Bar Association offers a number of ways to help new lawyers, make the transition from classroom to courtroom. Our popular, two-day, "Bridging the Gap" CLE program features experienced practitioners who offer advice on a broad array of topics, such as the basics of drafting a will, e-discovery, employment law and mediation.

Based on my personal experience, joining a bar association, whether the New York State Bar Association or a local bar, is a shrewd decision at all stages of an attorney's career. Bar associations, I believe, make better lawyers by fostering opportunities to interact with colleagues and learn from them in ways not always available in a normal practice setting. Law firms traditionally have recognized the advantages of bar membership. Regrettably, today, some firms, facing economic pressures, are not willing to give younger lawyers the time to participate fully in the bar.

While younger attorneys may be savvy at networking via LinkedIn or Twitter, they also should be encouraged to engage in old fashioned, face-to-face networking where a chance encounter at a reception, a question at a Section meeting or a phone call to a stranger they sat with at a CLE can lead to longtime professional and personal friendships.

As well as networking opportunities with fellow State Bar members (who practice in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and 120 countries), our newly-admitted members receive $1,700 in tangible benefits—such as Fastcase, CLIO, discounted CLE courses, life insurance and, in near future, a way to consolidate law school loans.

Experienced Practicing Attorneys

The legal profession has changed vastly since the days when Dictaphones and secretaries were commonplace. Attorneys now must master technologies like email, smartphones and e-filing that can reduce costs but increase client expectations. These technologies pose ethical questions about client confidentiality. The State Bar Association endeavors to keep its members informed about how to handle such ethical concerns.

The new technologies, which also reduce the need for secretaries and other support staff, make it easier to start a solo or small law firm. Running a small business requires attorneys to deal with finances, human resources and marketing—skills not taught in law school. To help legal entrepreneurs hang out a shingle (including recent law school graduates) or improve how they manage existing firms, the State Bar Association offers a variety of resources in law practice management.

We also recognize that a legal career can have multiple phases. Litigators change fields. Mothers—and sometimes fathers—seek to return to the workforce. Older attorneys at small firms want to turn over their practices to someone younger who will share their commitment to their clients. Partners look for meaningful careers after "retiring" from large firms. We offer resources for these "lawyers in transition"—CLEs, publications and, most importantly, a chance to interact with other attorneys who are making or have made life-altering professional transitions.

My law school education provided a foundation for my career. My classroom education continues with continuing legal education programs. However, I also recognize Mark Twain's wisdom: "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." I have learned so much about law from other lawyers who generously have shared their knowledge, experience and advice with me. I met many of them through my activities with the State Bar Association, as well as local bar associations.

My advice to law students as well as newly admitted and experienced attorneys is become active in a bar association. And my request to law firms is to support your new lawyers in doing so. We have so much we can learn from each other, which will make us all better attorneys.

Reprinted with permission from the “August 18, 2014” edition of the “New York Law Journal”© 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.
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