Do Bar Associations Really Benefit Solos?

“The hierarchy of the State Bar is not at all concerned with solos.”

“The truth is that the [state bar] is just not relevant to the majority of …lawyers.”

“Solos have been left out.”

“The ABA doesn’t do anything for solo and small firm lawyers.”

“Solos have a tight operating budget and I haven’t seen the ABA as a huge value for the money.”

“I get thirteen things from the ABA – 12 magazines and an invoice.”

These quotes come from statements in online articles and discussion forums, as well as comments made to me.  Attorneys complain about bar dues and their perception that bar associations pander to big law firms, providing very little value to solos. When I delve into the subject with them, however, they often come away surprised at the extent of resources available that they were unaware of.

This post is not a defense of bar associations. I see lots of room for improvement. It’s not an indictment of lawyers, either. They are swamped with trying to manage information overload, rapidly evolving technology and increasing client demands.

This post will show you a smattering of the benefits available to solos in hopes that it will spur you to do your own investigation. Since I’m in Texas, you’ll see a lot of Texas references. If your own bar association doesn’t provide similar resources, show them these examples and make specific requests to your bar representatives.

Legal Research Tools

Most state bar associations provide some kind of free access for their members to legal research tools for statutes, codes and case law. Casemaker has arrangements with 28 bar associations. Fastcase provides free statutes, case law and forms online for members of 18 bar associations. LoisLaw is available free to bar members in some states, such as New York. Pennsylvania provides free access to InCite by LexisNexis.

Members of the State Bar of Texas can also subscribe for a fee to an Online Library which provides access to articles from prior TexasBarCLE courses. It is available for free to College of the State Bar of Texas members.

Starting a Practice

Often bar associations have resources and guidance on starting a practice. The Texas Young Lawyers Association created Office in a Flash with tips and sample forms on a flash drive or online, as well as the video “Hanging Out Your Shingle: Things to Consider Before Starting Your Own Practice”. The Massachusetts Bar has a Start-Up Kit that contains checklists and advice.

New York has tools for How to Start a Practice and so does Pennsylvania.

Determining Where to Practice

Some state bars publish demographic information that can help you determine where your services may be in highest demand, reasonable fees to charge for your services, and what income ranges you might expect.

Demographic and Economic Trends for Texas Attorneys – See the attorney population density, median hourly rates and median attorney income by county, practice area, age, etc., as well as other demographic information.  The ABA Market Research Department provides information and links about various legal demographics and resources, and California has some demographics and a member survey report.

Marketing Your Services

Here are some examples of how bar associations help lawyers learn how to market their services:

Connecting with Other Lawyers

A high percentage of lawyers still get most of their business through referrals from other lawyers. We all benefit from consulting with colleagues about thorny issues or just to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Bar associations provide ample opportunities for building relationships with and learning from other lawyers through meetings, CLE seminars, committees and events. Some bar associations also provide online opportunities for connection. Here are a few:

TexasBarCircle is a social media platform similar to LinkedIn, for Texas Bar members only. Lawyers create discussion groups based on geographic location, practice focus, law schools, outside interests, etc. They seek advice, look for other lawyers to refer matters to, announce office space for lease and discuss timely topics.

The Pennsylvania Bar has an online Solo and Small Firm Practice Section listserv.  SoloSez is the ABA’s GP, Solo and Small Firm Division’s extremely active listserv with around 3,000 members discussing legal issues, technology, practice management and many other law-related topics useful to solos. California has a Lawyer to Lawyer Network for members of the Solo and Small Firm Section.

Dealing with Difficulties

Most state bar associations have a confidential Lawyer Assistance Program for helping lawyers deal with problems of stress, burnout, substance abuse, depression and mental illness. Here are links to a few examples:

Resolving fee Disputes

Many state bar associations provide a service for assisting attorneys and clients in resolving fee disputes. By way of example here are links to information about some state programs.

Miscellaneous Tips

Somewhere in the ABA Blawg list you will find opinions on just about any question you may have relating to the practice of law. Here are a few other kinds of resources:

Law Practice Management

The ABA Law Practice magazine and Law Practice Today online are full of useful articles about law practice management and technology. Massachusetts provides free or very inexpensive consultation on law office management issues, by appointment through its Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP ). They also have some free training programs, such as the upcoming Limited Assistance Representation Training Program on May 28, 2011.

Pennsylvania has numerous categories of LPM resources including the Ask Ellen program where lawyers can submit questions to the Law Practice Management Coordinator for help.

If you already pay the dues, make some phone calls or get online, and get your money’s worth!

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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23 comments on “Do Bar Associations Really Benefit Solos?

  • The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs maintains links to the lawyer assistance programs in each state, as well as other resources for lawyers, judges and law students who need help with alcoholism, substance abuse or mental health issues or knows someone who does need help. The link to CoLAP is at http://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance.html

  • Our bar association, http://www.osbar.org, has an incredibly active Sole and Small Firm Practitioners section that benefits members in numerous ways: informative blog posts, listserv discussions, product discounts, member directory, CLEs, great Web content, and more. In addition, the Professional Liability Fund which is operated by the Oregon State Bar, provides FREE and confidential practice management assistance throughout state, including in-person, telephone and email consultations, free books, over 300 free forms and checklists, a free newsletter, free or low cost CLE, etc. Nearly all our resources and consultations are directed toward solo practitioners or small firms.

  • I think much of what is the value of a bar association rests with exactly what you are pointing out – the publications, services and opportunities afforded as a part of membership. That is the constant refrain I repeat whenever I hear the subject discussed in the meetings I attend as a member of the governing council of the ABA Health Law section (as the Young Lawyer – there is a joke in there somewhere for those who know me) and on the membership committee of the section. The opportunities I have been afforded because of my involvement with the ABA have not yet “paid off” in terms of financial gain – that will come with time – but I have developed a broad network of friends and contacts that allow me to access information and assistance from these folks. I believe that the work I have put into making this small section of the ABA a better value is making me a better lawyer and more valuable to my clients in the long run, even if they don’t know it now.

    The caveat, of course, is that this may work in a fairly narrow substantive are of the law, like health care law. But there are opportunities on a much smaller scale in the local and state bar associations. I recently attended the annual meeting of one of the local bar associations of which I am a member and met a women who graduated from law school after me, yet she was just named/elected to the Board of Directors of this small local bar association. Why? Because she raised her hand and did the work (and is starting a solo/small firm section in the local bar – the second section after estate planning).

    In the alternative, however, I don’t find the Texas Bar Circle all that useful. Just sayin’.

    Marc

  • I think the most telling quote is yours: “When I delve into the subject with them, however, they often come away surprised at the extent of resources available that they were unaware of.”

    Of interest is that many Solos aren’t aware of the resources that you point to. It is hard to dispute that unknown resources are virtually worthless and, if the solos don’t know that they are there, well… they might as well not exist.

    If the bar associations have failed in that sense, that the solos aren’t aware of the resources, the bar associations have failed the solo community. But maybe it’s not an issue of what has happened, but why. Why have the Bar associations failed in getting out the word? In short, I believe the key is “focus.”

    My thesis: Bar associations have failed solo (and very small firm) practitioners in that their focus is mainly on things of concern to the large firms and to the bar writ large – hence the failure to “get the word out” about those available resources.

    I guess that is a topic for another day (at least I hope it is).

    I also might argue that many of those resources (except for casemaker) are fairly slim in real value to the practitioner. If the value was real, direct, and necessary, solos would certainly spread the word themselves.

    Quite frankly, the Texas bar association (and other ass’ns) should make more free CLE-credited programs available (at least really relevant practice related programs – say a Crim Law 101, or a Texas Practice 101, etc.) and offer a better mentoring system for young, and older, solos. That would be real, tangible, practical and incredibly useful information.

    Why does the TX Bar Ass’n not offer that kind of information; the useful CLE programs, etc.,? I am not certain. But I do believe that my mandatory dues ought to be sufficient to support at least a little.

    • I give the TX Bar credit for allowing us law students to watch CLE online for free, which apparently continues until I am licensed. I did want to attend a day-long conference coming up for marriage dissolution and all the Bar gives is a $25 early buyer discount. That makes the conference like $500. The new attorneys who are starting their own firms are the ones that most need these boot camp CLEs and they can’t afford access. Stinks. But the Bar will respond to demand and woefully few young attorneys are standing up and yelling from the rooftops that they need more help. It’s up to us to push the Bar to spend money. They won’t do it on their own.

      • And you are correct… “until you are licensed.” I urge you to take a moment and calculate the fees (bar registration and CLE requirements) and consider the cost of maintaining your license which can be quite a drain on a young solo.

  • Daniel and Beverly-
    Thanks for sharing information about what your bar association offers. I hope that solos in your jurisdiction will see this.

    Mickey-
    I agree that many bar associations fail to effectively communicate the benefits available to solos or any other members. I actually mentioned that in the first draft of this post, but decided to save that discussion for another day. The State Bar of Texas used to send someone to the office of small firms to reveiw their practice management processes and provide advice, upon request and at a VERY reasonable fee. I know lawyers who found that extremely helpful and valuable. And yet, it was one of those virtually unknown services. Unfortunately, they have discontinued that benefit.
    Kudos to the Oregon and DC bars for focusing similar hands-on resources to help solos be successful lawyers.

    Marc, I agree that many groups in Texas Bar Circle are not very active, interesting or useful. In the Solo/Small Firm section, however, I see some pretty interesting discussions. I also see lawyers pretty regularly asking for a name of someone they can refer a matter to in another geographic location or with certain expertise. I suspect that many of those participants are not active in other social media, so it provides a more significant benefit to them.

    I predict that your bar activity will pay off in the way of bringing business your way in the future. Hopefully you won’t be like the guy I wrote about here http://www.lawyer-coach.com/index.php/2007/06/01/marketing-what-are-you-already-doing-right/ who was getting referrals, but did not realize that he was getting them because of his bar work.

    Perhaps in another post we can put together our wish list for how bar associations can do more or get the word out better?

  • Thanks for providing this interesting look at what bar associations can offer solo lawyers. I am not currently practicing solo, but I find the idea of starting my own practice increasingly appealing.

    The problem I have always had with the bar associations is the cost, not just of membership but of involvement. I have never been privileged enough to work at a firm or company with a big enough budget to pay for my dues as well as CLE programs, so I have always had to shoulder the burden of paying these costs. While I have generally maintained my membership in the ABA and state bar association, I don’t feel like I’ve been able to truly get involved to the extent necessary to really “get” anything out of the experience because I can’t afford to attend annual meetings or the big week-long conferences. This, I think, is where the bar associations fail young, solo and small firm/company lawyers.

    I also find that many of the CLE programs offered (other than the basic “bridge the gap”) expect a certain degree of sophistication in attendees. I’d love to see more basic and practical programs targeted to those of us who haven’t had the benefit of several years of law firm training or mentorship from senior attorneys.

  • Thank you for a very helpful article. There are a number of state bars that offer free or low-cost practice management advisory (PMA) services to members, as does the American Immigration Lawyers Association–the first national specialty bar to offer these services to members. We help members with starting a practice, marketing, technology, management, and financial issues. In addition, the AILA program helps members with legal ethics questions and other aspects of professionalism. A current listing of PMA programs is here: http://bit.ly/gGpIhs.

    • Thanks – I have to do another update. One problem that I did encounter in gathering this information (back in 2009 last time) is that many of the bar sites had terrible navigation and it was difficult to find information, even when I was aware that it existed. I also outsourced collection of some of this data and was not sufficiently vigilant in my oversight – though many LPM advisors weighed in with tips and I updated the chart. I’ve got to update it again and make it more legible.

      • Carolyn, you really hit on one of my frustrations with bar associations….often they have useful content and valuable resources, but you can’t find them. That’s a big reason why lawyers think the bar doesn’t do much for them. The “just in time” access sucks. Sometimes I use something on a bar website, but then can’t find them again. I know it is there, but can’t find it! Grrr!

  • I agree that CLE and other programs offered by bar associations often cost too much for solos and new lawyers. Discounting the cost of membership is not enough, if the benefits offered are still too expensive to take advantage of.

    Perhaps you can point out these comments to your bar association. If they will follow the example of the bar associations that provide low-cost services to solos and new lawyers, perhaps that would allow them to cut their budgets for disciplinary actions.

  • Like so many other things in life, bar associations are what you make of them. In my experience, local bars and practice-area sections offer the most value in terms of networking, low-cost CLE, and leadership opportunities.

    It’s often true that solos are underrepresented. If you don’t like the way a bar association is run or what it offers, get involved and change it from within.

    • Todd, good point about under-representation of solos in bar associations. I think it is sort of a self-selection process. Many solos feel overwhelmed by the business and administrative aspects of practicing law. They don’t think they have time to get involved. What they may be missing, however, is the opportunity for “crowd-sourcing” of techniques and information that would help them be more efficient and effective.

  • A reader of ours, Ed Walters, pointed out an update to our state bar counts in this article: “Because the State Bars of Oregon, West Virginia, and Georgia have all switched from Casemaker to Fastcase in the last 18 months, Casemaker now has 26 state bar associations, and Fastcase has 20 state bars, as well as dozens of voluntary bar associations.”

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