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Bar Service:  Is it worth your time and, if so, how should you get involved?
By:  Dylan O. Drummond; K&L Gates, LLP; Austin and Kennon L. Wooten; Scott Douglass & McConnico, LLP; Austin

Young lawyers often confront time-management challenges as they strive to balance personal obligations with an ever-growing list of professional obligations. They may ask whether they should add bar service to that growing list and, if so, how they can get involved with the bar.
After practicing law and being actively involved in bar service for about ten years, we have learned that bar service can (and often does) help lawyers on both a professional and personal level. In this article, we will tell you about the benefits of bar service and provide various tips relating to bar service.
Bar Involvement Serves the Public & Improves the Profession

The most important reason to be involved with the bar is that it helps you to serve people in need and improve your legal skills in the process. Many bar groups offer opportunities to work at free legal clinics, take on cases pro bono, and provide other general legal services (such as drafting legal resource guides). Opportunities to apply your legal skills to assist others in need are abundant, and neither youth nor inexperience will disqualify you from service. Thus, bar service helps you develop legal skills that you may not be able to develop at your day job (at least in the early years of practice). By developing those skills while helping people in need, you get the additional perk of knowing you are doing something that makes a positive difference in your community. That is good for the community, and it is good for you. 

That said, given the tough legal economy, you may also be keenly interested in just securing or retaining a job! So below, we address some of the more practical benefits of bar service.

Bar Service Will Set You Apart
There is no shortage of lawyers in Texas. In recent years, the number of law-school graduates has exceeded the number of available legal jobs. So now, more than ever before, you must set yourself apart from other lawyers in order to get a job and advance professionally after finding employment.

What will set you apart and help you succeed is ensuring that people know who you are (in a good way). Many bar organizations offer opportunities to meet and mingle with lawyers and judges. By taking advantage of these networking opportunities, young lawyers can secure jobs, gain clients (e.g., through referrals from other lawyers), and gain credibility that helps them when appearing before judges.

So, a great way to distinguish yourself from the herd, burnish your social skills, and meet colleagues, potential clients, and judges is to get involved in some form of bar service.

Bar Service Will Increase Your Likelihood of Being Recognized

Just wander into any office of one of your lawyer friends (or look around your own), and it will become clear that we attorneys love “ego walls.” Anything with our name on it is self-evidently frame-worthy.

But how do you get on the radar of groups like Martindale Hubbell®, Super Lawyers®, Benchmark, Best Lawyers®, etc.? Well, one excellent way is through bar service at any level. The people who are already members of these honorary groups nominate young lawyers they see making a difference in their profession, and dedicating their valuable time to serving people in their community. Bar service is ideal for providing not only the service conduit but also the requisite visibility for such recognition.

Now, keep in mind that some ranking or recognition groups are more dubious than others! And no award or recognition will guarantee that legal opportunities will come your way. But colleagues and clients like to see that their lawyers have been recognized for their work, so to the extent such recognition flows from bar endeavors, it is a nice, tangible reward for diligence and good work.

What Level of Bar Service is Right for You?

There are three general levels of bar involvement: (1) local (city or county); (2) state; and (3) national.

If you have (or want) a practice that is primarily local in nature, then your best business-development return on your nonbillable time investment will be at the local bar level. These are the folks, practicing in your community, who will think of your face when they need to refer out a matter. An added benefit is that the impact you make on clients and colleagues is felt right in the locale where you live and work.

State bar groups are typically comprised of practitioners who have been involved in their local bars and/or have excelled in their respective fields of practice. Your speaking and writing opportunities at the state-bar level will garner broader audiences and greater exposure than at the local-bar level. Thus, state-bar involvement can be an effective way to develop a broader client base and lawyer-referral pool.
Involvement in the national bar—e.g., through the American Bar Association—is prestigious and provides incredible visibility in other jurisdictions and with other national policymakers. But it may not have as much of an impact on your career at a local level or on your community. Because Texas is such a well-developed, independent, and sophisticated bar, our reliance on national bar groups is relatively light by comparison with some other jurisdictions. Nonetheless, if you are interested in practicing across state lines or in policymaking at a higher level, national bar service may be ideally suited for you. 

Volunteer Early and Often
As a young lawyer, bar groups probably will not look to you for your vast storehouse of legal knowledge. What they do need, by and large, is a warm body and a willing soul.

So dive right in, and volunteer to do all the grunt work you can starting out. This will be noticed by people in leadership positions, and it will provide you with great opportunities to showcase your work ethic and willingness to help where others might not. But when you volunteer, do not approach the tasks at hand any differently than you would approach them if you were being paid top dollar for your work. There are few things that speak louder about a person than the person’s eagerness to take on a task they expect will provide them recognition or resume fodder, but who then turn around and either hand off the unglamorous work to someone else or shirk it altogether. Don’t be that person. Be your best self, no matter what the setting may be.

If you bust your tail as a volunteer and help to achieve good results in the process, fellow bar members will notice and remember. They will think of you when they need a lawyer to join their team and when they need to refer legal work to someone else (due to a conflict, workload, or any other reason).

Bar service fills a crucial need both for the public and for the profession itself, and it can be a lot of fun.

But never forget that your clients and colleagues pay you to work for them, not anyone else. The recognition you may garner for your firm or agency through bar involvement is valuable and often appreciated, but it will hurt your career if you do not match it with the work that you are paid to do.

Go be a “bar star,” but be sure you do so in addition to—not instead of—meeting your job-performance metrics. No colleague or client will ever complain about your bar involvement as long as your time is first spent meeting the legal needs of those who are paying you for your legal services.

DYLAN DRUMMOND is an accomplished civil appellate and commercial litigator resident in the Austin office of K&L Gates, LLP. He is former clerk to now-Chief Justice Nathan Hecht at the Texas Supreme Court, is AV™ rated by Martindale-Hubbell®, and has been selected as a “Rising Star” in appellate practice the past six years by Thomson Reuters as published in Texas Monthly. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Texas Bar College, as a subcommittee chair on the Texas Bar Pattern Jury Charge Committee, and as a councilmember of the Texas Bar Appellate Section.

KENNON L. WOOTEN is a partner at Scott, Douglass & McConnico, LLP. She represents individuals and entities in complex commercial litigation, general civil litigation, and civil appeals. Before joining SDM, she clerked for the former Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson, worked as an associate at Baker Botts, L.L.P., and served as the Rules Attorney for the Supreme Court of Texas. She is the Immediate Past President of the Austin Young Lawyers Association, a Board member for the Austin Bar Association, and actively involved in the State Bar of Texas.