Bar Associations Also Benefit Big Law Associates

Seize OpportunityA few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Black Women’s Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago (BWLA) Annual Meeting. With approximately 100 lawyers in attendance, the meeting was a tremendous success. I spoke at the beginning of the program about our mentoring program, and much of the talk revolved around the National BWLA Summit that will be held next spring right here in Chicago. But my favorite part of the evening was when each one of those 100 attorneys in attendance stood up and mentioned their names, their jobs, their roles they may have had with the BWLA, and, here’s key, whether they were looking for a new job or had a job opening in their organization. By the end of the meeting, cards were exchanged, calls were arranged, and another great community of attorneys was born.

There was just one disappointment about that BWLA Meeting. I walked out with a colleague and remarked to her, “There weren’t that many BigLaw attorneys there tonight?” “No,” she replied, “there never are.” In that room of 100 attorneys, I counted maybe 2 who worked for a law firm of more than 50 lawyers.

I know the excuses. BigLaw is a very difficult endeavor, as I’ve written before. My first bar association event was the Chicago Bar Association Annual Dinner, about three weeks after I left my BigLaw job. And as current and former BigLaw colleagues of mine have mentioned repeatedly, bar associations just don’t offer the same benefits to BigLaw attorneys. The four major arguments: (1) Bar associations don’t have clients. (2) Bar associations mostly consist of solo and small practitioners. (3) Bar associations are primarily useful for their CLE programs which aren’t needed by BigLaw attorneys. (4) BigLaw attorneys required to bill 2200 hours a year simply don’t have the time to attend bar association meetings.

To answer those arguments, I turned to someone who has been successful in both worlds. Terri Mascherin is a litigation partner at Jenner & Block, a national law firm headquartered in Chicago. Terri is also a former president of the Chicago Bar Association. In addition to her very busy practice, Terri actively volunteers with numerous bar committees and is a dedicated servant of the legal profession. Who better to ask about BigLaw lawyers and bar association service?

We started at the heart of the argument: what benefit is there for a young associate, set to bill 2200 hours a year, to joining a bar association? Terri’s answer: horizon-broadening and full participation in the profession of law. “[I]t’s short-sighted for any lawyer in a big firm, but particularly people in earlier stages of their careers, not to realize the benefits of being involved in a bar association,” says Terri. “It’s very easy when you practice in a large law firm to stay in your tower and essentially never deal with anybody other than people in practices very similar to your own. For the most part, you’re dealing with a very narrow slice of the legal profession. There is so much more out there that you can benefit from by making friends, contacts and establishing a network, with lawyers in other types of practice other than your own.” That ability to build connections and create networks was the primary reason that Terri joined the Chicago Bar Association. “I felt if I wanted to feel like part of the profession in Chicago, I needed to interact with a wider array of lawyers in different practices in the city.”

Additionally, particularly for young litigators, participating in bar associations provides a great benefit – socializing, ethically, with the judiciary. “Judges are really constrained in the types of social contacts that they can have,” Terri explains, “because they have to be so careful about confidentiality and propriety. A bar association is a safe place for judges to make friends and have social contacts  … it’s a social outlet that they otherwise would have difficulty finding.” The benefit to a litigator is enormous: “For someone like me,” Terri says, “who practices in courts for a living, it’s a great thing. It’s great to have that confidence and credibility when you walk in the courtroom, the judge knows who you are, you’ve been on the board of a bar association together, you sat together, there’s just a reputation kicker that is really tremendously helpful, particularly to a young lawyer who might not know a lot of people.”

But there are no clients, those outside the bar association world protest. Why should we spend our miniscule free time attending events that clients don’t? Terri disagrees with that excuse. “There are clients. A lot of lawyers who start out practicing go in-house somewhere. What BigLaw lawyers need to be doing is think about rainmaking. Any network you build can be helpful in the long run in terms of establishing client relationships.”

And don’t only join a bar association. Be active in a bar association. Seek leadership positions in a bar association. The year Terri spent as CBA President ranks as one of the best experiences of her life, and led to some unique professional surprises. “I think one thing that I didn’t anticipate would happen was that I was able to develop a significant number of really wonderful international contacts … I was able to attend The Conference of World City Bar Leaders in three different locations. I met dozens of lawyers who were leaders in their local city bars from around the world. I have been invited back to Paris for conferences and I have a good Rolodex of contacts all over the globe.”

So young BigLaw associate, consider joining a bar association. If you’re looking for immediate gratification, you may not find it there. But what you will find are lawyers, judges, clients, and friends, contacts across the world, and a professional and personal network that will last throughout your career. It’s an opportunity worth seizing; don’t miss the chance. Here’s hoping I see you at the next Annual Meeting.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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