On my third or fourth day working for a bar association, I was invited to attend a “Law Week” planning meeting. In the meeting, one of the committee members was talking about a “fluffier” community outreach initiative – an elementary school poster and essay contest or something of the sort.
I suggested sending some information to our local media – either before the contest to garner interest or post-contest to celebrate the winners and generate some feel-good publicity for the Bar. The Law Week Committee Chair pondered the idea for far too long before saying (and I am quoting verbatim),
“I’m not sure about that, maybe we should talk to a media relations professional.”
With nearly a decade of experience working in media relations locally and nationally prior to joining the bar world, I was dumbfounded.
Wasn’t I the media relations professional?
While I didn’t fault the committee chair for his comment – he barely knew my name at the time let alone my credentials – this is a story that I have told countless times throughout the years to illustrate part of the experience of being a bar professional.
Ellen Miller (@emillerprogress), former Executive Director & CEO of the San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA) and now a part of the new California Lawyers Association (CLA), initiated a significant transition in how bar employees were viewed by bar leaders by changing SDCBA staff titles to include the words “expert” or “specialist” where appropriate.
More notably, however, Ellen changed the common law firm moniker for non-attorneys of “staff” to “internal team” when talking about the Association’s employees, a practice that has since been adopted at several different state and metropolitan bar associations.
In an interview with the American Bar Association’s Bar Leader magazine, Ellen explained the reason for the change, saying, in part, “We wanted to create titles that sent a signal to the member that the person they’re talking to at the bar is not their staff member. We’re exposing them to experts in their areas.”
Bar professionals, in general, are very fortunate. We work with a highly educated and intelligent group of people who are in a profession where they can make real changes, and if they are involved in bar leadership, are usually committed to doing so.
Sometimes, however, I found myself wanting to remind them that bar professionals are also fairly well educated and intelligent.
Though I’m sure my fellow bar pros could tell war stories of insults from “lawyers behaving badly” for days, most of the bar-related attorneys who I had the opportunity to work with were respectful and courteous, and valued the experience and expertise of the internal bar team.
I was lucky to work with some incredible lawyers and make some extraordinary friends who truly made me feel like we were working together and not solely at their direction. And though I value those relationships, some of the best people I have ever met are my fellow “bar people.”
Earlier this month, while attending the National Association of Bar Executives (NABE) Annual Meeting in San Francisco, I was reminded of how truly unique the bar professional community is in the greater business and association world.
For starters, there are a lot of really, really smart people in bars all across the country. Innovators and creative thinkers and strategists who are driven by the desire to satisfy their members’ needs and exceed their expectations, and who are collectively working towards the betterment of the profession and our justice system.
Bar professionals, while leaders in their own right, are rarely the ones who are in the spotlight – instead, they are teeing up their leaders so that they can shine and are happy to be standing behind the curtain cheering them on.
Volunteer bar leaders change year-to-year, leaving the resilient bar staff to ensure that projects get completed, that the balls left in the air by various volunteers get carried through to the following year, and are also charged with keeping the organization’s strategic plan on track.
Often times, they do the same tasks and run the same events over and over and over again each year, and yet they always find a way to do something a little bit better, find a creative new take on an old program, or rearrange everything to better line up with their current leadership’s vision.
Undeniably, one of the best qualities of “bar people” is the kinship and collegiality we all share with other bar people. Since bar associations largely don’t compete with one another, it is not uncommon for bars to share not only ideas and concepts, but actual policies and materials with one another.
Rather than letting a colleague “reinvent the wheel,” bar professionals will generously offer up all of the guidance and insight they have on a particular issue or project – sometimes related to common bar initiatives such as providing education on judicial independence or enhancing diversity and inclusion efforts – or on more tactical matters, like how to implement new online communities within your association or how to kill your print directory and move it online.
In my experience, bar pros are also always willing to talk through any bar problem with one another until they find a solution – particularly over a few cocktails or a nosh at NABE meetings.
As bar associations are generally thinly staffed, there is usually only one person in any given association who performs a particular function. We recognize that our bar colleagues are the only people who do what we do day-in and day-out, and we lean on one another for ideas, empathy, advice and other support.
In one of my all-time favorite (and not-at-all related) articles about weight loss, writer Emily McCombs talks about her experience of being overweight and the perspective it gave her once she lost weight, ending the article by saying, “I hope I always stay fat on the inside.”
As my career continues to transition, I keep thinking about this sentiment, and how no matter where I end up, I hope I will always be a “bar person” on the inside.