Becoming a Bar Leader in Three Easy Steps

Alas, paying your dues is still required, but the rewards of serving the profession are limitless.

And, as with any political campaign, things either happen by accident, or they don’t.  If they don’t, there is no need to give up.  Here is a handy guide to making it in your law association, in three steps:

  1. “Get” the job description
  2. Read the bylaws of your organization
  3. Volunteer for anything

1.  “Get” the job description

Bar leadership, after one seeks it out for years, might seem an end in and of itself.  Having attained office, you may wonder what to put on the agenda.  Or you may seek to complete specific projects within the mandate – in the case of a president or chair, usually one or two years – at the expense of advancement of the core values of the profession.  Aimlessness means you let the membership down, and obsession means you have forgotten it is not about you but about the membership.  True Bar leadership requires recognition of shared principles, and leading the organization in times of change (i.e. always).  Unless you lead, you become an agent of inertia and apathy.

As a volunteer in a law association, your single thought must always be: what is required to advance the interests of lawyers?  Our profession relies on certain social, political and economic conditions to exist, and it is for this reason that our profession needs you and others to show leadership:

  • Rule of law.  In Canada, we take it for granted.  We should not.
  • Transparency and access to justice.  If truth and right cannot prevail, no one will bother to hire a lawyer.
  • Privilege.  It is truly our one unique commodity.  Without it, no one will seek our counsel.
  • Competence.  The minimum expectation of the public, without which they would not see our services as having value.
In every committee, assembly or media interview, what you say to others must pass through the filter of the above four precepts. They are more than talking points.  They are the North, South, East and West on your mental compass.  After all, success in Bar politics is all about maintaining a firm hand on the tiller, while listening to the daily requests from special groups about their need for resource allocations.
There is always competition for resources between advocacy and service, and the easy way out is to try to be all things to all people.  Eventually, that route will cause resources to dry up and advocacy will suffer.  Saying “no” will seem arbitrary, not principled.  Forming an understanding about Bar advocacy will win you your election or acclamation to the ladder, because advocacy implies clarity and decisiveness, whereas the populism of pandering to the service side of any community organization implies nautical drift.
Keeping these law association precepts in mind also makes it easy to think on your feet at a meeting or gathering.  Get up to the mic, think about how your idea can address one or more of these concerns, and deliver a Memorable 30-Second Speech (click on the link to find out more).  You’ll look and sound like you fit the job description of a Bar leader.

2.  Read the bylaws

Most bar association boards rely entirely on nominating committees to replenish themselves.  This is largely a function of the duty of existing bar leaders to recruit new ones.  Unfortunately, in many instances the function is misapplied as the privilege of an “Old Boys Club.”  In so doing, the “Old Boys” let the association down and membership numbers will dwindle with changes in demographics.

You would not conduct a business deal or a real estate transaction without a checklist.  You would not handle a criminal or civil case without familiarity with the rules of evidence.  Why, then, when it comes to bar politics, no one reads the organization’s bylaws?  When you do, you will likely find that the leadership of your local, regional, provincial or national association operates a ladder for officer positions, and some kind of nomination and/or election process for boards and committees.  If you want to advance your particular group, or advance yourself, within the bar association, you have to know the rules.  If you are a member, you are entitled to ask the administrator for a copy of the bylaws.  In larger organizations like the CBA or OBA, bylaws are available online for all members.  Although it is specific to the OBA, my OBA Board and Council Orientation is a handy guide to the organizational structure of our provincial and national association.

3.  Volunteer for Anything

That’s right, anything.  If you dislike finances, you’d be surprised to see that joining a finance committee is only half about financial statements and the rest about association priorities.  Or if you like finances, joining a strategic planning committee may surprise you how much revolves around maintaining fiscal responsibility.  Get involved in a “social committee.”  Most smaller associations have one, and they usually have the highest visibility.  There is always work for volunteers in a law association.  Get involved, make sure you keep the four core law association precepts close at hand, and soon enough you will be seen as an emerging leader in the Bar.  The Bar expects nothing less from you.

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