The case for bar associations: Why they matter

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Adrienne Koch.

Adrienne B. Koch

I have to confess that I am a bar association “junkie.” It’s hard for me to get enough. I love the camaraderie, the opportunity to meet and work with lawyers from all walks of the profession, and the feeling that we do sometimes make a difference. I suspect that there are many in this particular audience who feel similarly.

Lately, though, it looks like not everyone agrees with us. Much has been written about voluntary bar associations’ efforts to shore up their finances in the face of declining membership while finding creative ways to “remain relevant” – that is, to give lawyers in today’s legal profession reasons to join and to participate. It seems to be getting harder and harder.

A small step back to define a key term. I mentioned “voluntary” bar associations to distinguish them from so-called integrated bar associations. In many states, membership in the state bar association is mandatory for all attorneys; these mandatory bar associations are called “integrated” because they regulate the legal profession and engage in other activities such as organizing continuing legal education programs, holding public forums on topics of interest, taking part in lobbying and legislative work, publishing reports, and the like. Until 2017, the largest of these was the State Bar of California.

Effective Jan. 1, 2018, however, the functions of California’s bar were split into two separate organizations—one with mandatory membership that carries out regulatory functions such as attorney discipline and admissions, and another, the California Lawyers Association, that is voluntary and does everything else the state bar has historically done. The CLA is reported to be off to a good start, and I certainly hope that continues. But I also fear that it will eventually have to deal with the same membership struggles that other voluntary bar associations face at the moment.

It wasn’t always like this. When I first began practicing law nearly 30 years ago, joining a voluntary bar association was what you did. There was almost no need to justify it or even to think about why; the only question was which one (or which ones) to join. It was part of being a lawyer.

Now, not so much. And bar associations are working hard to pinpoint and address the reasons. Some observers point to “a millennial generation that prefers virtual communities, law firms that don’t want to provide financial support and lawyers who are questioning the value of belonging.” Others note that bar associations are competing for lawyers’ free time, which is a dwindling resource. And of course, how we interact is changing. Thirty years ago, no one would ever have asked if a CLE or a publication was available online, or if a meeting could be held via Zoom.

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One thing, however, remains true: Bar associations perform vital functions, both in the legal profession and in society at large. These include serving as a central point of engagement for lawyers who wish to participate in pro bono work; helping to educate the public about legal issues, developments in the law and their legal rights; reporting on legal trends and advocating for legal reform; and helping to maintain the integrity of the legal profession.

But there is something else voluntary bar associations provide that is unique, irreplaceable and vital to every lawyer’s practice: the opportunity to meet, know and work collectively with a community of lawyers and judges beyond the walls of one’s own office. This is how we truly participate in the profession of law. We may find other places to get our CLE credits more cheaply or efficiently, and we may no longer need the large libraries of books that many bar associations historically provided for their members. But no available substitute for any of those things can take the place of the bar association as a vehicle that enables us to engage in the activities that make the practice of law more than just a job.

Bar associations are the heartbeat of the legal profession. We lawyers should care that they are struggling and that their membership rolls are dwindling. And many of us do. But what can we do to help?

One answer may be to make more room in the practice of law for today’s lawyers to participate in bar associations. The billable hour expectations for many young lawyers, for example, can leave little room for anything else outside of work. Even in areas of the profession where the time demands are considered less onerous, they are still significant. I believe it is up to those of us who are further along in our careers to help younger lawyers hold space for bar association involvement. This will mean both encouraging them to get involved and taking real, concrete action that allows it to happen—including not only mentorship and sponsorship, but also giving credit for bar association work as part of an associate’s performance evaluations. I certainly received that kind of support and encouragement as a young lawyer. If today’s junior lawyers are, in fact, less eager to participate than we were, it may not only be about them. It may be about us too.

Law firms and other legal organizations must also recognize that there is something at stake for them as well. Many of the aspects of bar association work that are beneficial to an individual lawyer also benefit his or her firm or organization. Bar association activities build one’s reputation in the legal community. They help foster contacts and relationships that can be not only fulfilling but also (if I can be so blunt) professionally useful. That, in many ways, is the point. And, in addition to what that does for a lawyer individually, it makes him or her that much more valuable to the firm or organization. We should want this not only for ourselves, but also for our colleagues.

There are undoubtedly adjustments that bar associations must continue to make in order to meet the needs of a changing profession in a changing world. But as the profession itself evolves, I strongly hope that it (and we) will continue to make room for bar associations. I commit to doing as much as I can to facilitate that, because I can’t imagine the profession without them.

Adrienne B. Koch is a litigation partner with Katsky Korins LLP in New York City. She has been actively involved in bar associations throughout her career and currently serves as treasurer of the New York County Lawyers Association. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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