The Benefits of Voluntary Bar Associations: A Q and A with Nicole Del Rio

We hear about the importance of being involved in different organizations all the time. While this column focuses on connection, I want to remind all the young lady lawyers out there that yes, it is ok to take a step back if you have to rethink how you spend your time. You will not gain anything out of participation in a voluntary bar association if you are stretched too thin. Joining a voluntary bar association can be incredibly rewarding for lady lawyers.

To offer a young lady lawyer’s perspective, I’ve asked some questions from Nicole Del Rio, Staff Attorney at Bay Area Legal Services, Inc., located in Tampa, Florida.  Nicole primarily practices housing defense for renters in the Tampa Bay Area. She also co-manages the Social Services Navigator Program at Bay Area Legal, where social work interns address clients’ social needs to provide a more holistic legal service. Nicole has held leadership positions locally and in the ABA YLD.  Earlier this year, Nicole received the Hillsborough County Bar Association’s Outstanding Government/Non-Profit Lawyer Award and was recognized as "Star of the Quarter" by the ABA YLD for her contributions to the Disaster Legal Services Team where she contributed to building new relationships with Puerto Rico and assisting earthquake survivors. She is currently a member of the ABA Disaster Legal Services Team and the ABA COVID-19 Taskforce Committee on Eviction.

Q. What advice do you have for someone who wants to participate in a local bar association, but doesn’t know where to start?

A. I recommend you start by asking your colleagues what bar associations they participate in and consider joining the local bar as soon as you can.  As a new attorney the Young Lawyers Divisions are going to be a great starting point.  The American Bar Association, has a very active Young Lawyers Division, and they offer law student memberships!  Most states also have great young lawyers divisions as well. There are often many scholarship opportunities and fellowships to help you jump start your involvement.  I also recommend trying out an association for one year and pursuing leadership positions to really get a feel for the organization.  If that is not your cup of tea, consider attending the countless CLE’s most of these organizations offer and take advantage of the networking opportunities at CLE’s and luncheons.  Given the current climate I also think it is extremely relevant now a days to take advantage of this and be on video for these Zoom calls and take advantage of face to face time you might only get by travelling and do it from home!

Q. What have you gained by joining a voluntary bar association?

A. I have gained valuable perspective locally and nationally by joining voluntary bar associations.  I have also had the opportunity to tap into areas that I am passionate about such as community outreach, through voluntary bar associations.  Further, I have gained valuable connections on a national basis that have led to truly relevant opportunities tied to my work. 

Q. What kinds of events have you participated in?

A. I have had the opportunity to participate in and host a multitude of events.  I have participated in luncheons, CLEs, conferences, and community outreach.  You can really make your participation in these organizations whatever you want it to be.  One of the best experiences I have had was being an American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Scholar.  The division sponsored about 20 young lawyers for one year to attend the conferences, join a committee or team, and get to know the division.  There are many programs like this locally, statewide, and nationally. 

Currently I am an ABA Disaster Legal Services Team Member and serve on the ABA COVID-19 Task Force - Committee on Eviction. In the past I have co-chaired Pro Bono and Community Outreach Committees.  My participation shows how widely varied your commitment can be within voluntary bar associations. 

Q. What does your weekly or monthly time commitment look like in terms of your participation?

A. Personally, I have a relatively high monthly time commitment in terms of my participation by choice and because my job allows me to participate and contribute this work to the voluntary bar associations.  As a member you can carve out as much or as little time as you would like by strategically choosing what you join.

Q. Has your level of commitment varied as you have continued to practice?

A. As I have continued to practice, I have found that my level of commitment has increased because I have specifically selected the positions that require more of a time commitment, but that I am passionate about.  As we enter the new bar year, I am focusing on more substantive positions that are relevant to my work.

Q. What part of voluntary bar association participation do you like the least?

A. Personally, as someone who considers herself half introverted and half extroverted, I do not enjoy the first few meetings as they can be uncomfortable.  There will always be a period of adjustment, but I have found that this is a noticeably short length of time and you will quickly figure out what bar associations better suit your time and need.  Sometimes an association might not be a good fit, and it is okay to figure that out as you go.

Q. Do you ever feel “lawyer” fatigue? If so, how have you dealt with it?

A. Absolutely.  While I am very lucky to have a job that allows a work and life balance, I have had lawyer fatigue, especially amid the current COVID-19 crisis.  I find that taking 15-minute breaks either to take a walk during work time or meditate at work is incredibly helpful.  In terms of more long-term ways to deal with it I personally think that time away from professional development commitments is incredibly important.  The way I do this is by taking time off when necessary to reset.  Whether that is a vacation or a staycation – I think this is key as well as knowing that it is okay to have lawyer fatigue – we are not robots.

Q. Anything else you want to share? 

A. Participation can often be overwhelming.  Take your time, make wise choices about what you want to dedicate your time to, and do not be afraid to say no! Ask at interviews how a potential employer would feel about participation in voluntary bar associations.  If your current job does not support this, consider creative ways to tie it to your day to day activities – there is almost always a substantive committee that you can join which will bring clients and substantive knowledge to your position.  Do not be afraid to ask your job about an opportunity as they may support and/or sponsor you.

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