When I was nominated as CBA president-elect, I still qualified as a "young lawyer." April is my birthday month, which means I have crept one more year beyond being a member of the CBA Young Lawyers Division (YLD), and one year deeper into the rest of my career.
When I started my term as president, one of the major focuses of my presidency was on young lawyers. I even came up with a hashtag, #thefutureisnow. I get a lot of questions about this during my presidential visits, such as: How do we get young lawyers involved? Do we need to do more to get young lawyers involved? Are we doing enough or approaching it in the right way? I also get similar questions from young lawyers: Why should I be a member of the bar? What do I get out of it? Why does it matter?
The answer to each question could be its own article. But it is important to be able to address at least a few of them as we move forward as a bar association. The most important questions to me are: What do young lawyers gain from being involved? And, what does the bar gain from having young lawyers involved?
What is a "young lawyer"?
As defined by the CBA YLD, "young lawyers" encompass two groups, sometimes overlapping. Group one includes attorneys who have been in practice five years or less. Group two includes attorneys under the age of 38. As a result, a 60-year-old lawyer who is new to the profession can be a "young lawyer" for five years; or a "young lawyer" can be someone like me, who was in practice for 12 years before aging out of the YLD. All CBA members who meet the definition of a young lawyer are automatically members of the YLD. There are no extra fees or enrollment requirements; if you fit the definition, you are a member.
What do young lawyers stand to gain from the CBA?
The easy response is opportunity. The CBA is fortunate to have a robust Young Lawyers Division. The YLD enables young lawyers to get involved in the bar through community activities, volunteer opportunities, continuing legal education, interaction with sections and committees, and social activities involving other attorneys (young and experienced). These opportunities are not superficial interactions but instead are substantive opportunities, driven by the guiding principles of the YLD.
Recently, the YLD refocused its goals for the future, fine-tuning its mission, vision, and values. As its mission statement specifies:
The Young Lawyers Division fosters community for new and upcoming legal professionals by being a valuable resource for its members to engage with, and contribute to, the Colorado Bar Association. The Division paves the way for its members to develop meaningful careers and a lifelong commitment to service and excellence in the practice of law.1
It is the YLD’s vision to be "a valuable resource for a diverse and inclusive membership of new and upcoming legal professionals while fostering professionalism and promoting the success of its members."2 The core values of the YLD are: inclusive, representative, professional, innovative, service, and wellness.3
Based on these guiding principles, the YLD provides truly meaningful opportunities for early involvement in the CBA and for inclusion within the profession. The hope is that once young lawyers are engaged in bar association activities, they will continue their involvement for years to come. And, as I have written about in the past, involvement in the bar association is critical.
The CBA provides many intangibles that improve the practice and professionalism of attorneys and, in turn, benefit the clients we serve. The main intangible is the connection bar association involvement fosters between and among attorneys. When attorneys are connected, they have colleagues to bounce ideas off of, to refer cases to (or more important, to receive referrals from), to celebrate victories with, and to help trudge through the struggles and setbacks.
But when attorneys are isolated, they miss these opportunities. Isolation can lead to the parade of negative outcomes that we have seen plague our profession, ranging from further isolation, depression, substance abuse, mispractice, malpractice, or grievance, to one extreme, or just not enjoying the job and all that the profession has to offer. These things are not going to happen to all lawyers who choose not to be involved, but being involved does help guard against them. The CBA is more than an organization: it is a community that provides many levels of support and interaction to its members.
The bar association community is particularly important for young lawyers. There are very few challenges faced by young lawyers that have not already been tackled by the attorneys who came before them.
Melissa E. Darigan, president of the Rhode Island Bar Association, recently provided an insightful perspective on what young lawyers gain from involvement in the bar:
Beyond knowing the nuts and bolts of the trade, young lawyers want to be perceived as being good lawyers and leaders. One way to achieve professional recognition is to be an active part of the Bar Association. Giving CLEs, working with committees, writing for the Bar Journal and serving on the Bar’s governance boards all offer young lawyers unique opportunities to elevate their profile within the legal and business community. In particular, Bar Association work helps young lawyers develop important leadership skills. This is not a skill set taught in school, and it can take years for a young lawyer to even have exposure to leadership opportunities in a law firm setting. Skills developed working with the Bar are useful in all areas of life, from client development to law practice management, to being president of your child’s school PTA.4
Involvement in the CBA and the profession beyond the day-to-day practice is not the magic bullet that cures all of the problems that lawyers might face. But it doesn’t hurt. I can only speak from personal experience on what I have gained from the bar. Through my involvement, I have been given a wealth of opportunities. I met some of my closest friends through committee work and bar activities. I volunteered and helped people that could not afford an attorney. I learned to be a leader. I made professional connections (and received a few referrals). I became a better lawyer, both by gaining substantive knowledge and by getting connected to experienced attorneys who helped me learn what it really means to be a good lawyer. I even met my wife through the bar association. It has been very much like a country song in reverse. What others might gain from the CBA is up to them, but there is a wealth of opportunities at their disposal.
What does the bar association gain from young lawyer involvement?
Young lawyer involvement in the bar association will pay invaluable dividends in the future. I don’t mean this in terms of financial gain for the CBA, or in terms of driving up membership numbers. Instead, I am referring to investment in our profession as a whole, including those who choose not to be members of the CBA. This is the true meaning behind #thefutureisnow. The future of the profession is upon us. We should not be thinking about what needs to happen years from now to strengthen the profession or about involvement and inclusion at some obscure point in the future. These things need to happen right away.
We are at a time in the history of the profession when providing opportunities, involvement, and inclusion are of paramount importance. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the high water mark for new student enrollment at ABA-accredited law schools was 52,488 in 2010.5 This is often attributed to the 2008 recession, which led to a large number of students flooding into law schools and other professional schools. The number of new enrollments has dropped dramatically in the past few years. In 2014, that number fell to 37,924 new full-time and part-time students, representing a 27.7% drop in enrollment nationwide over that four-year period.6 The ABA stated that "[t]he 2014 1L enrollment [was] the lowest since 1973, when there were 151 ABA-approved law schools."7 In 2015, the number dropped even lower, to 37,058.8
The low law school enrollment figures have to be viewed in tandem with the large number of attorneys who will retire in the next five to ten years. The statistics on these numbers are much harder to come by, mainly because we, as lawyers, don’t adhere to hard retirement deadlines and routinely work beyond standard retirement ages.
In practical terms, however, this means that in the very near future, there will be large numbers of lawyers leaving the profession, and fewer lawyers entering. As our numbers decline, the connection between lawyers and the bar, and thus lawyers connecting to lawyers, becomes even more important. If we are to help our bar association and profession continue to thrive, we must stay connected. That connection must include young lawyers, and the connection must be meaningful.
Investment in our young lawyers is an investment in our future. I encourage you to share this message with lawyers who are new to the profession. Help them realize the great things that await them. Provide them the opportunity to succeed with the support of those who have shared similar success. Give them a forum to work through the all-too-familiar setbacks and challenges. Guide them as only someone who has faced the same issues can. Be there for them in the profession, and also as a community.
1. See www.cobar.org/index.cfm/ID/22820.
4. Darigan, "Giving and Receiving at the Bar Association," Rhode Island Bar Association President’s Message (Jan./Feb. 2016), www.ribar.com/about%20the%20bar%20association/barpresidentsmessage.aspx.
5. "ABA Section of Legal Education reports 2014 law school enrollment data," ABA News (Dec. 16, 2014), www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2014/12/aba_section_of_legal.html.