I travel to many local bar association meetings during the year. The pep talk, my expression of appreciation, the handshakes and face time all amount to something for my efforts, but I wonder. I mostly wonder what the members take away from our time together. I wonder how to follow up and maintain the connections.
Here, we have over 32 voluntary bar associations. Some have regular meetings with well-thought-out agendas; some just have an annual Christmas or New Year’s party. When 65% of the state’s lawyers are in Atlanta, that leaves a paltry sum of lawyers in rural areas (where the poverty population is high). The rural bar associations certainly struggle to maintain relevance. If the rural bar has an agenda, that agenda can run from supporting the local boy scouts or high school chorale group trip with a few hundred dollars donation.
Larger city bar associations usually have an air of progressiveness or community service. That means structured meetings dedicated to important topics (that periodically include Rule 6.1 pro bono – as opposed to broader notions of pro bono or community service). Attention spans can be short, after all, as soon as a lawyer is elected to local bar leadership, a one-year term passes quickly, especially when meetings are not regular or not structured to be most effective. One local bar leader can be thoroughly supportive of pro bono while her colleagues are either lukewarm or more committed to other kinds of bar activities.
Let’s look at the assets of local bars.
Local bars, depending on membership, can have treasuries from zero dollars to 5 or even 6 figures. Local bars with critical mass have regular meetings for their members. They sometimes have a group e-mail system (not always up-to-date), infrequently a listserv. A local voluntary bar rarely has a staff person dedicated to the business of the organization. Sometimes the bar has its own referral service (either web-based or a telephone answering machine with callback function). In my experience, few bars have newsletters or websites. I don’t know of one with a business plan.
I have some practical tips to share.
- Make friends with bar association treasurers. Once I asked for $1,000 from a local bar treasurer for an appreciation reception. It was approved. A few weeks later, I ran into the treasurer at a bar function. The treasurer brought up the subject of the donation, asking, “That was $1,000, right?” I said with a broad smile on my face, “No, $2,000.” She smiled, laughed, and said, “$2,000 it is then.” Later in the week, the $2,000 check was on my desk.
- Use humor. Smile a lot. It goes a long way. If that doesn’t work, at least they’ll rate you as an imbecile rather than a deadly bore.
- If you can give them a listserv, do that. They’ll send you their e-mail list. Add your tag line to the footer for their listserv messages. You can imagine the possibilities.
- Small-city bars don’t appreciate “folks from Atlanta”. Find a way to identify with your local bar audience. And by all means, don’t talk business for the first 20 minutes!
- Religion informs everything in the rural south. Find a way to connect; if you can’t be authentic about that, don’t try it.
- Somebody in the local bar has a deep interest in a justice issue you can speak to — special education, elder abuse, veterans issues– find that person with that issue and explore how you can support the development of a local approach to the problem.
- Young lawyers (few as they are) in small towns are light years ahead of their counterparts in the big city firm in terms of independence and free thought. They get to make the decisions about their professional lives. Flipside: It’s their money vested in the decision, not the firm’s. They’re more cautious, but once they make the decision to volunteer, they don’t have to report to anyone. Friends for life.
- Local legal aid lawyers absolutely, positively must attend the local bar meetings – regularly.
- When you talk about pro bono, speak in the language of opportunity. Chaos, emergency, dire need are not the touchstones of your dream for them. Isn’t the rubber chicken lunch you are sharing pain enough?
- Your local legal aid program may not be “on message”. Craft that message for them. Write them a script if that’s what you have to do. Instruct them in the ways of pro bono. You have to leave them something to work with that builds on your message.