Engaging, empowering & launching young lawyers

ISBA President-Elect Carol Adinamis and I attended the National Conference of Bar Presidents (NCBP) meeting in Houston, Texas, Feb. 6-7, with Executive Director Tom Pyrz and Associate Executive Director Susan Jacobs. The conference featured several plenary and breakout sessions on numerous topics about bar association leadership in the practice and administration of law, but a couple of sessions made me ponder things that I will be considering throughout much of my presidency, one of which I will describe briefly in this blog installment.

Young lawyers (to include ISBA Young Lawyers Section members Bryan Rogers, Andrea Ciobanu and Matt Light) and bar leaders from the Indianapolis, Indiana State and Illinois State bar associations brainstormed in a round-table discussion about the engagement of young lawyers in bar associations. Much of the discussion focused on how to help young lawyers engage in bar association activities beyond the young lawyer divisions or sections. Three takeaways from that discussion resonated with me.

My first discussion impression was that bar associations need to find ways to help young lawyers participate in leadership and develop their careers in practical ways that are compatible with young lawyers’ busy and financially burdened professional and personal lives. Young lawyers today have the same problems with balancing work and home life that we older lawyers once shouldered, but home life is more complex now than before. Student loan, mortgage and car loan payments often leave no disposable income for new lawyers. Also, many young lawyers with school-aged children feel extra schedule crush as sports and other extracurricular youth activities have expanded in recent decades into year-round travel commitments. Our beleaguered young lawyers find it difficult to engage in bar activity that does not offer tangible opportunity for career development or personal growth within manageable budgets and time frames. If we want to engage young lawyers, we must deliver meaningful and flexibly scheduled career development and personal growth opportunities within the volunteer experience.

The second idea was that young lawyers need support at home to encourage their volunteer work. Most experienced lawyers know that their peer networks formed through professional and social interaction with other lawyers of varied backgrounds and experience levels. When we see a young lawyer distinguishing herself or himself through volunteer service, we can encourage the lawyer very effectively by him praising the lawyer to partners, judges and other people within the lawyer’s home community. A bit of praise in young lawyers’ firms and home communities by prominent bar association members can help employers and family members appreciate and support future volunteer efforts.

The remaining idea that I retained from the round-table discussion was the value of equipping young lawyers for service. My best way of thinking about equipping young lawyers is a slight refinement of an old adage about feeding the hungry with fish. We know that a person will be hungry again tomorrow if you give him a fish, but he can feed himself if you teach him to fish. We can strengthen the metaphor by saying that if you train fishing instructors, you can help feed more people. Likewise, bar associations can grow in size and effectiveness by teaching young lawyers to become “fishing instructors.” It is fine to groom someone for leadership, but one of the most important grooming lessons should be how to recruit and train successors. If young lawyers multiply their influence through their own protégés, we will all ride a sustainable wave of positive momentum powered by their initiative.

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