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LP Magazine – Guilt by Associations

ABA Law Practice MagazineIn my March/April 2023 marketing column in the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Magazine, I address the pros and cons of organizational involvement in Guilt by Associations.

It should come as no surprise that I tout my ABA involvement as a core component of my own business development strategy. At some point, I decided I was going to go “all in” on ABA activity—and it has been beneficial on so many fronts. For me, as an attorney, I wanted to network with other lawyers. And because my own business and practice is national in scope, a broader-based organization made more sense. As a bonus, many of my closest friends today are people I met through ABA activity.

Now my home for most of the last 20+ years of ABA membership has been the Law Practice Division. But choosing the right places to hang your hat have a lot of variables—geography, practice type, cost, ability to travel, ability to meet on nights or weekends, ability to build a referral network, exposure through writing or speaking, and opportunities to be a leader. Are you an introvert or extrovert? Who else is active in the organization? The thinking should go well beyond, “I live in Chicago. I should join the Chicago Bar Association.” Or “I’m an IP lawyer, I should go to INTA.” It might involve a women’s initiative, or something outside the scope of legal, like a House of Worship or Museum group. Some of the wisest moves in organizational involvement is to sit on a board with huge potential clients on the left and right of you—but in a completely non-work, non-legal setting.

One of the first things that we look at when I sit down with a new attorney at one of my law firms—be it a rookie or a lateral veteran—are which associations they will join at the firm’s expense. Many law firms allow an attorney to be reimbursed for two of them. At many firms, there is a finite list in which to choose (often, unfortunately, dictated by dues category). Because most of my law firm clients are midsize, I like to strategically put attorneys in a manner where the firm has representation in many places. For example, in Philadelphia, I don’t want every attorney joining the Philadelphia Bar Association and the Pennsylvania Bar Association. I want to spread the firm’s brand to specialty bars, adjoining counties and states, and at a national level. In Big Law sit-downs, I’m less concerned about hitting multiple targets. It will happen by itself.

A benefit of being a young lawyer is that you also can join organizations for far less than I could. There are young lawyer and young professional rates that are low-cost, and allow an attorney to test the waters without spending a lot. In addition, the young lawyer groups within an association are often seen as springboards to future leadership. Many ABA presidents were once leaders in ABA YLD. And substantive sections within the organization, in areas such as Business Law and Litigation, are looking at the YLD actives as a pipeline to leadership.

Personally, I was already borderline “aged out” of the YLD category when I became an active member of the ABA. Ironically, my own ABA YLD initiatives came when I was chair of the Law Practice Division. I too looked to YLD as a pipeline to leadership in LP. And to this day, I continue to push many young lawyers into ABA YLD activity early—knowing that I’m giving them a jumpstart to leadership positions later.

Now, depending on the association, there can be some benefits to being a member “in name only.” I pay my dues, reference membership in my bio, and do little to nothing else. You aren’t likely to generate new business or contacts from that approach. But it can look good as a “good housekeeping seal” in your narrative.

Just yesterday, I had an attorney ask me if I could refer a litigation firm in a small southern town. My ABA activity has allowed me to develop friends and colleagues throughout the country—and I was able to make an introduction. This is a huge difference between activity in a local bar versus a national one. When I’m in Philly, we’re not going to ask around about finding another Philly lawyer. But in an organization that is national in scope, those referral opportunities abound. Depending on your practice area and geographic market, the numbers might vary. But there is a reason that the Business Law Section has a plethora of Delaware corporate attorneys—because at some point in time, every corporate lawyer needs Delaware counsel. Consider the practice and the place.

It is easy for me to write about the benefits of association involvement from a marketing perspective. It’s been central to my own business development efforts for nearly a quarter of a century. And as I often like to say in BD discussions with lawyers, nobody is doing it for that long if there is not a payoff.

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