Law school offers incredible opportunities for learning and growth—both personally and professionally. And for those looking to expand their professional networks or boost their resumes, a bar association membership can be a great addition to coursework, extracurriculars, and journals.
It may sound like something you can only do after earning your J.D., but that’s not the case. Joining a bar association—an organization for legal professionals—at the student level has numerous benefits. Many organizations have specialized programming and offerings just for law students.
Want to know more? We spoke with representatives from several bar associations about some of the reasons for getting involved as a law student.
1. A Start on Your Network
For Capital District Women's Bar Association (CDWBA) board member Kathleen Brown ’14, getting involved with local bar associations as a law student was a crucial decision that has kept her career moving forward. She’s used her bar association connections as references for jobs. And she pays it forward by spreading the word about jobs across different legal realms.
“By making that connection with a local attorney, you have not only the benefit of growing your own network but now you have access to their network, to their relationships and their friendships,” she said. “To have that from an early start—in law school—is so important.”
Getting a leg up on building professional relationships can benefit law students when they look for their first job—and beyond. While you may not reap the benefits of a connection immediately, making those key contacts are an investment in your success.
“It’s a continued opportunity to see—depending on what your interest is—the same people so that if nine months from now they’re looking for someone, they’ll know you’re ready,” said Susan DeSantis, chief communications strategist for the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA). “It’s a continued relationship with people.”
2. A Positive Influence
There are many ways to connect with potential mentors in law school—professors, upper-class students, and internship supervisors often play that role—and a bar association allows that circle to widen even more. Membership provides a way to learn from practicing attorneys in the exact field in which a student may have an interest. Additionally, involvement may offer a firsthand look into a sector of the law they may not have considered.
“Once you become a member and you start having those interactions, you are part of the family,” Brown said. “We’re going to help the people who are our clients and be good advocates there, but we also look out for each other as a legal community and find ways to make each other better.”
Many mentor-mentee relationships blossom organically through events and Continuing Legal Education (CLE) programs. A lot of organizations also have a more formal program set in place, such as CDWBA’s Wing Woman program, through which senior lawyers attend events alongside a law student mentee—a partnership that helps ease the awkwardness of arriving at an event alone.
The Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY) matches mentors and mentees based on both personal and professional compatibility, said executive director Yang Chen. Their application-based program is something many members take advantage of—but it can’t survive without law student involvement.
“Don’t wait until someday far off when you think you have more credentials,” Chen said. “We want law students to come and be a part of the profession early on. The sooner they join, the more benefits they will get.”
3. A Lifetime of Learning
Learning never stops in a legal career. A bar association offers access to opportunities to stay sharp through CLE programs, webinars, and other events. Bar associations often coordinate and host CLE programs on topics in the news or emerging issues. Such programming is a great way to see how your legal education fits into the world.
“It’s a cross-section of incredibly intelligent people who are coming together,” Brown said. “The dedication of board members and bar association members that host CLEs to discuss local issues, having conversations, checking in with each other—I find that it is a virtue of being a smaller organization.”
Student members can play a role in creating CLE programs—AABANY’s Committee Chairs, who organize the association’s numerous programs, often tap student members for help organizing presentations or conducting research for the events, Chen noted, adding that this work can be done virtually.
“The remote world we’ve sort of been forced into is now making it easier for us to connect. I’m hoping that can help us connect [more] with upstate law schools,” he said. “It’s a great way to get outside the four walls of the law school and meet real-life lawyers. There’s no longer a geographic barrier.”
4. An Expansion of Your Experience
Being a member of a bar association is a great addition to your resume; it often stands out when looking for jobs or internships. Yes, law school is a busy time. But a commitment to one of these organizations can involve as much or as little as your schedule allows—you’re a member nonetheless.
“It’s very important for a law student to say, ‘Yes, I am a member of a bar association.’ It enhances one’s stature and one’s credibility,” said NYSBA president Scott Karson. “For that reason alone, I think it’s worthwhile. Even if you never attend a meeting or a program, it enhances you and your resume simply by saying you are a member.”
Joining a section or committee within a bar association is a way to be involved without a huge time commitment, Karson said. Sections often produce various publications as well, which students can use as an opportunity to hone their writing and editing skills.
It’s also a way to observe and learn from lawyers in a specific area of practice and learn more about the issues they face, the people they help, and the skills they use day-to-day.
“It will help you understand the various areas of law,” said Anta Cisse-Green, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association (MBBA). “Bar associations give you opportunities to see what lawyers in a specific area [of law] actually do.”
5. A Chance to Make Change
Just like attorneys advocate for clients, bar associations advocate for members of the legal profession everywhere.
Earlier this year, New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced that mental health–related questions are no longer included in the New York State bar application. The issue was raised through efforts by NYSBA, and the chief judge credited the bar association in her announcement.
“That was a big victory. It encourages law students who require help to seek it out without worrying about the stigma that might otherwise attach [itself],” Karson said.
Some bar associations also provide a resource by breaking down the law in understandable terms—such as a one-page explainer reminding people of their rights when interacting with law enforcement. These projects involve research and compilation—areas in which a law student could contribute, Cisse-Green said.
“Knowledge needs to be dispersed. It’s the only way we will see any real change,” said Cisse-Green. “We are at the heart of many of the conversations taking place [right now]. A lot of law firms are looking to us for strategy and help with action plans.”
Joining a bar association as a student may be free, or it could involve a nominal membership fee, according to these leaders. The access and opportunities that these organizations provide—at the nationwide, statewide, and local levels—can provide great benefits, helping law students tap into the profession from the start.
“This is the easiest way to build a strong network very early in your career. It’s something that you wouldn’t be able to get in law school alone,” Chen said. “The connections you make in law school are one level, but to connect meaningfully with actual practicing lawyers—there is no better way to do that than by becoming a member of a bar association.”