How to maximize the value of bar associations

I recently attended the fall meeting of the Section of International Law of the American Bar Association (ABA). Four days packed with CLE programs and networking opportunities.  How many LL.M. students did I meet? One! 

LL.M. students are chronically unrepresented in U.S. bar associations. The reason is a lack of information both on side of the LL.M. student and the bar associations. LL.M. students are uncertain about how they can leverage membership in these organizations to make it worthwhile and associations are looking for new ways to serve this community better. The good news is that great tools and channels are already in place. We just need to use them.

Getting involved in associations is a bit like building a snowball — the beginning is difficult, but once the ball rolls it keeps growing.

When I came to the U.S., I immediately joined both the New York City Bar Association and the ABA. I was encouraged to do so by my law school.  I paid my dues, was proud to be a member, and that was pretty much it for the first year. I went to a few events but did not get the hang of it. I may have given up the idea altogether if I had not constantly been reminded of its importance. Fast forward three years: I am Chair of the New York City Bar Association’s Law Students Perspectives Committee, Co-Chair of the ABA's Law Student, LL.M. and Young Lawyers Outreach Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA’s Young Lawyers Interest Network, and Deputy of the Communications Officer for the ABA’s International Section. And it is absolutely worth it. 

I encourage every LL.M. student to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities U.S. bar associations offer, no matter whether they plan to return home or stay in the U.S. So let's look at some ways to get involved in associations and where you can find them: 

1. Show up

This rather obvious advice means more than simply attending a few events and talking to a people at a reception. Showing up means being present in the legal community. Every bar association has a multitude of committees focusing on different areas while working on a variety of projects. Becoming a member of such a committee, joining their meetings and conference calls on a regular basis and volunteering to work on projects is the only way you can be truly present. You will be recognized for your actions and deeds, not for the chatter you have with a glass of wine in your hand.

2. Volunteer 

An important part of “showing up” is volunteering. Bar associations offer a variety of opportunities to volunteer one’s time — writing articles for publications and newsletters, organizing programs and events, working on amicus briefs, and much more. Another benefit is being offered reduced program fees in return for your help.  Events at bar associations can be quite expensive. When I wanted to attend my first meeting of the ABA, the fees discouraged me. I offered my help during the event and received a discount in return. I helped at the registration desk, which allowed me to meet hundreds of lawyers from all over the world in only a few hours.  

3. Serve 

Serving on a committee is something that is unfortunately not done by many LL.M. students. Studying in the U.S. as a foreign lawyer opens the door to many opportunities, one of which is serving the committee. I consider this an opportunity rather than a responsibility because it is personally rewarding to give back. Serving the community can be done in a variety of ways — from pro bono work, to helping young lawyers and law students with their career development,  to helping associations advance their causes and goals. If you show your initiative and interest in helping the community, you will be heard. The most important part is your initiative. Do not expect bar leadership to come to you to ask for your help out of the blue. 

Desiree Jaeger-Fine, Esq, is a regular contributor to The National Jurist and principal of Jaeger-Fine Consulting, LLC, The Hub for Foreign Legal Talent™ - helping foreign lawyers seek employment in the U.S.