Leadership In Community Service As A Young Lawyer
Originally published in The Woman Advocate Newsletter, American Bar Association Section of Litigation, Spring 2015, Vol. 20, No. 3.
All attorneys, but especially newer attorneys, are asked to do a lot with their time. If you're in a firm, you've got billable hours to maintain, firm events to attend, and the never-ending quest for business development opportunities. If you're a solo, you are most likely spending all of your time worrying about the innumerable duties involved in running your own business and providing good service, all while keeping the lights on. Attorneys in government, in-house, and other settings have many of the same responsibilities and time commitments, along with stresses unique to their situations. Add to this the fact that you're also a human, trying to have a life, a family, friends, hobbies, and—if you are a parent—five minutes of uninterrupted silence, and this puts attorneys in a very difficult position. While additional time devoted to community service may seem impossible, it is well worth the effort, especially for young attorneys looking for ways to distinguish themselves among their peers.
No matter the setting, new attorneys must figure out their places in the legal landscape while at the same time focusing on developing the skills that make them valuable and marketable. One of those skills is leadership. It's a term thrown around in accolades and during award dinners, often associated with the more experienced members of our profession. For many, it's hard to imagine being the leader of anything, when you're still figuring out your footing in the law. But if there is one thing that the new attorney is, it's ambitious. If you are looking for an effective way to gain leadership experience as a new attorney, you only stand to gain when you make time for community service.
Taking active roles in community service organizations is far more accessible for the new lawyer than leadership positions in large organizations that are usually reserved for professionals with the connections and experience that you have yet to develop. Most community service organizations are in dire need of individuals willing to dedicate their time. Nonprofits are happy to receive a cold call or email asking if they can use another volunteer or board member. If you're unsure how you'll find an organization to get involved in, consider the following:
Stay local. If you are going to spend your time volunteering or contributing to an organization, why not choose one with a direct connection to your local community? Start by looking for organizations connected to your county or neighborhood. It would also be helpful to check websites for your local government, as they will often list city or county boards. In the age of Google, it's as simple as finding the organization connected to your community and emailing the directors to let them know you are interested in being involved. If you find a board that requires appointment by a government official, inquire with the director as to what is required for an application. While some boards tend to be political, many continue to operate with empty positions that need to be filled.
Start at home. Examine your personal connections for opportunities. Look for volunteer or board opportunities at your place of worship, your children's school, your own alma maters, or organizations that you have a connection to through your heritage. Ask friends and family if they can think of any organization that might need volunteers.
Stick with what interests you. You will be more likely to be an active, enthusiastic participant in the community service experience if you choose an organization that appeals to your interests. If you have always been passionate about reading, investigate local literacy organizations. Go to your local library and get yourself involved, or ask them where help is needed. We are so much more than our jobs, so use your hobbies and interests to guide you to an organization that you can be passionate about.
Become a mentor. You have worked very hard to get where you are today, and your skills and dedication in that endeavor are very useful to others. Start with your college and your law school and inquire about programs to mentor students. Local middle and high schools also have mentoring programs.
Once you get a sense of the type of organization you would like to get involved in, the most important thing is to be a reliable participant. Any leadership you choose to undertake can only begin if you show up. Becoming familiar with the organization's mission and getting to know the people who are a part of it will inform your decisions as to what role you should undertake. Opportunities for leadership will present themselves frequently, as many of these organizations rely heavily on their members for suggestions and advice and have events that need staffing or planning and bylaws to be reviewed and edited.
Your involvement will benefit you professionally in countless ways, many of which you already know. But putting aside those professional benefits, helping others will profoundly affect your life. Your involvement will enable you to get to know and learn from those whose experiences may be far different from your own, and to understand and solve problems you may have never encountered. Community service organizations are often underfunded and staffed by caring people who go above and beyond their job duties to serve the underserved. Your time and participation will mean more than you can imagine to these dedicated people. Taking the time to understand the people and causes that these organizations serve will enrich your life and the lives of others. These experiences will help you understand what it takes to be a good leader, regardless of how many years you've been a member of the bar.