The Advantages of Active Membership – by John S. Kiernan

John S. Kiernan

President’s Column, December 2016

With all the demands on your professional and personal energies, and all the unlimited-seeming challenges of serving clients facing complex problems, why should you devote a chunk of your time to engagement as a City Bar member?  Two main reasons: 1. It will make you a better practitioner; 2. It will help you to be the more fully realized lawyer you have wanted to be.

Active participation in our vibrant organization provides many opportunities to improve yourself as a lawyer. No matter what your practice specialty is, you can find colleagues who work in firms, in-house, government, law schools and nonprofits to expand your knowledge, advance your expertise, broaden your horizons by exposing you to different perspectives on relevant issues, and help you feel more on the cutting edge of recent thinking, developments and trends—while developing personal relationships with people you are likely to encounter in practice.

Much of our Association’s agenda-shaping and work product is the product of our 160 committees covering a vast array of subjects. These committees are purposefully limited in size so that each committee member can interact with every other member, and can and should feel like an active and engaged participant in the committee’s mission. Our members have made the significant commitment to serve as current members of committees, with nearly 5,000 seats filled.

Nearly all of our committees combine inward-facing discussions among their members, designed to foster sophisticated and up-to-date interactions reflecting the broadest achievable range of interests and views relating to the committee’s work, with development and generation of outward-facing work product. Those outward facing products––including CLE trainings, public programs designed to present and advance the debate regarding major issues, written reports and letters or oral testimony advocating for a position, amicus submissions to courts, editorials and drafts of proposed legislation or regulations—are broadly available to members. So it is not necessary to become a committee member to learn more about a particular discipline. The products of our committees’ outward-facing efforts tend to form the core of the City Bar’s professional education and its public advocacy.

While many members of our Association value it primarily as the clubhouse for networking and learning about their particular professional disciplines, many others use if for other practice-related purposes. A large number of our solo and small firm members use the Association’s library and other resources, and sometimes even our offered capacity to provide them with “virtual office” and conference room space, as a base of operations (or at least as a critical resource) for their practices. Other practitioners become connected to clients through our Legal Referral Service. And many take advantage of the numerous services and deals that come with membership.

But many lawyers also use their Association membership as a vehicle for pursuing their best and most fully realized selves as lawyers. Apart from practice specialists’ desire to convene with their fellow specialists, for example, lots of our members choose to join committees having nothing to do with their regular jobs. For them, the Association offers horizon expansion, exposure to subjects they find interesting, and sometimes participation in segments of the profession they don’t get to see at the office.

Our members also rightly view the Association as a vehicle for participation in public service and good government components of law. Because our committees are mostly comprised of highly competent and knowledgeable members representing a range of viewpoints, and because the City Bar has strived to focus on the public interest rather than parochial interests of a trade association of lawyers and to invest its work product with quality and broad opportunities for inputs, the Association’s advocacy communications tend to be viewed as credible and serious contributions to the public debate. We try to advance legislative and regulatory agendas, to influence public officials’ thinking, to ensure full judicial consideration of particular perspectives, and to provide a forum for public expressions of views by thought leaders. That can be an important and satisfying component of practicing law that our members are more readily able to pursue through our Association than through other outlets. 

For members looking for ways to help individual clients in trouble, to advance legal principles through impact litigation, or to support civil and human rights, the City Bar Justice Center and the Vance Center for International Justice provide great opportunities for important engagement and fascinating representations. Our Monday Night Law clinic provides an outlet for clinical volunteers. Lawyers in distress can receive pivotal assistance from our Lawyers Assistance Program, and our Office for Diversity and Inclusion provides important focus on enhancement of diversity and elimination of bias.

On top of all these advantages, involvement in our Bar Association provides the fun of getting to know and appreciate a huge swath of fascinating and diverse people from our legal community. As Harrison Tweed famously posited, lawyers “are more fun to work with or play with or fight with or drink with than most other varieties of mankind.” Of all the direct and collateral benefits that can come from engagement with the City Bar, the friendships may ultimately be the most powerful, satisfying and enduring.

We are delighted to have you as members, ambitious to include your friends and colleagues in our membership, and hopeful of seeing even more of you.

John S. Kiernan is President of the New York City Bar Association.