The Key To Young Lawyer Success

Bar Association NetworkSeptember is the busiest month of the bar season. Bar associations across the state are working hard to recruit new members, keep old members, and ensure that their programming and content stay relevant.

My advice to attorneys just starting their careers? You will not find a resource as valuable or as easy to access as the young lawyers’ section of a bar association. But don’t take my word for it; hear what four young bar leaders have to say about why young attorneys should join bar associations and young lawyer sections, and what the future holds for bar membership.

How can young attorneys benefit from bar associations? The overwhelming answer from all of the bar leaders with whom I spoke is “networking.” In addition to the basic job search aspect of networking, Paul Ochmanek, Chair of the Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyers’ Section says that bar associations provide the opportunity to network with peers, many of whom may later become clients: “[A]ttorneys will be expected to generate business later in their careers. However, you cannot ask for that business unless you have developed relationships and rapport previously.”

Business referrals also play a key role in association success. According to Chris Niro, Chair of the Illinois State Bar Association Young Lawyers’ Division: “I’m often presented with a legal issue outside of my practice area and I can quickly call on my friends through the bar associations to help my client. This makes me more valuable to my client and the reciprocal treatment from my friends has been a boost to my career.”

With the massive changes affecting the legal profession, how do these leaders see their bar associations evolving in the next 15 years? Katherine Calhoun, Co-Chair of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois Young Lawyers’ Division sees her bar association continuing its century-long work of promoting women’s rights: “Our goal in the next weeks, months, and years is to further promulgate, promote, advance and protect the interests and welfare of women lawyers.” Andrew Schpak, Chair of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, adds that emphasizing members and focusing on their needs is key to keeping bar associations relevant: “We need to focus on what members want … and focus less on what bar leaders think their members want.” Both Niro and Ochmanek see technology at the forefront of the oncoming change. “[A]ll bar associations are facing a dilemma,” Niro says. “How do we adapt to the growing technology dependence and provide value for members?” Ochmanek agrees. “The CBA will need to keep up with technology and the changing face of the legal profession … We need to be aware of this change and ensure we offer guidance so lawyers can succeed in this setting.”

Several bar leaders see the undertraining of new attorneys as a significant problem plaguing the profession, and each of their associations has initiatives devoted to countering the problem. The ABA YLD, for example, is launching a professional development and law practice management skills programming track at all conferences, along with complimentary webinars and teleconferences. According to Schpak, “Our goal is to help train young lawyers and make them more practice-ready.” Part of the problem, Ochmanek explains, is that law firms aren’t training their young lawyers like they used to. “Clients are more financially savvy then they were previously. They are no longer interested in paying the big fees when a smaller firm or solo can perform the work at a savings.”  Training then becomes a significant issue. “As an associate, I was expected to know what I was doing even though I was not trained on a specific task … However, there is a conflict between performing one’s own work for the billable hour and training which is not billable.”

The life of a young lawyer may seem daunting but our bar leaders wanted to offer some helpful, and candid, thoughts to the new class of first-year law students. “Do not take any opportunity for granted,” Calhoun advises. “You have classes to go to, exams to study for, papers to research and then write, networking events to attend, jobs or externships to apply for and then the work to do, in addition to balancing time for friends and family. Put all of these together at once and you admittedly may feel a little overwhelmed at times. But, each piece is an essential part of the law school experience that will help to prepare you for the legal profession.” Schpak agrees. “Your legal career starts now, not after you graduate. Start networking, both with people within your class but also with lawyers in the city in which you hope to live after you graduate. Remember, your life only gets busier after this.” Niro adds that you need to be honest with yourself about your future loan burden and earning power, “This profession is not for the faint of heart, you need to have a serious conversation with yourself and make sure that you want to dedicate yourself to this profession and invest the significant resources required to actually enter the profession.” Finally, Ochmanek says that mistakes are part of life; the key to success is how you recover from them: “You will make mistakes (but don’t do it often!). It’s called the practice of law for a reason.  I am still practicing eight years later as I learn new tips and areas of law.  Don’t be afraid to take on a new task and push yourself out of your comfort zone.  Make a mistake, but learn from it and move on.”


This blog post was previously published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

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