By Cameron Rhudy, Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) Staff Attorney
As a resilient economy lawyer, I focus on my community. I use legal tools to support the local production of food, energy, housing, and jobs in an effort to strengthen the local economy. And I help clients navigate the roadblocks local enterprises face when raising capital from the community. But just as my clients need a community of support to succeed, I as their lawyer also need a community of support - a community of other lawyers.
Beyond Mentors and Networking
When I was newly licensed, I was urged to find a mentor. I was taught early on that I should network, which often amounted to exchanging business cards at awkward cocktail receptions. And while mentors can be great and networking can sometimes lead to a job or a referral, I have had to look beyond mentors and networking to find a larger community of support as I build my law practice.
Resilient economy lawyers face unique legal questions when advising alternative entity and governance structures, such as worker cooperatives, community land trusts, and community renewable energy projects. Sometimes, however, our immediate mentors do not have the answers we need because those questions don’t always come up in traditional law practices. So tapping into a larger community of lawyers is necessary to get the support we need to best represent our clients. And since many resilient economy lawyers are solo practitioners or work in small firms, we don’t always have colleagues in the office next to us to brainstorm with. There is so much we need to know about so many areas of law, so having a community of support ensures that we don’t have to navigate those legal questions alone. It’s also just more efficient to pull from a large pool of knowledge and experience than it is to rely on just one or two people. Building a community of resilient economy lawyers is more than exchanging business cards; it's about building a lasting culture of sharing and support.
How Resilient Economy Lawyers Can Build Community
The idea of a community of lawyers sharing knowledge and collaborating can sometimes make the lawyer part of me nervous. I was trained to be risk adverse, so questions about professional ethics come to mind. And the prospect of asking other lawyers for help can sometimes be intimidating because some lawyers feel protective of their tips and tricks of the trade, many of which have been learned by long hours and hefty law school debt. But resilient economy lawyers need to think creatively to solve unique legal issues, so in this regard I believe it helps to think more like a creative entrepreneur than a lawyer.
Creative entrepreneurs find and/or build their community. They join virtual communities like the SeanWes community or connect on social media using Instagram, they teach their skills on Skillshare, CreativeLive, and Creativebug, and they connect and inspire at conferences such as Alt Summit and Craftcation or more informal events such as Creative Mornings. The bottom line is that many successful creative entrepreneurs share: they share their creative process and their stories about how they got where they are, they tell people what tools they use, and they share their knowledge about their respective industries.
Similarly, as a newbie letterpress printer I found my creative community by sending an inquiry on a local listserv looking for likeminded printers in my area. Although only one person responded, that person led me to a community of printers in my area and now, two years later, we still meet up about once a month to discuss our projects and troubleshoot challenges; we have even collaborated on multiple projects.
Lawyers should do this too!
Forget About Competition
Lawyers often shy away from sharing knowledge or sharing model documents, unless the person falls within an inner circle of colleagues or perhaps is a fellow dues-paying bar association member. Sharing knowledge with other lawyers is sometimes viewed as helping out the competition. Unfortunately, this way of thinking hurts the clients more than it hurts whomever is perceived as one’s competitor.
What many creative entrepreneurs already know is that sharing knowledge benefits everyone. Sharing information increases the quality of products or services, which improves the entire industry, and this ultimately leads to repeat business. The legal profession is no different. If we support each other in providing legal services to our clients, this improves the profession as a whole, and that is ultimately a win for all of our clients.
Lastly, there really is enough business to go around.
The Internet and Social Media Can Help
The Internet and social media make building community easier than ever before. Creative entrepreneurs are taking full advantage of it: websites, blogs, newsletters, podcasts, and all of the various social media platforms are full of information being shared among artists, bloggers, crafters, and other creative entrepreneurs. Lawyers should be connecting with each other in similar ways.
Yes, lawyers have to comply with a variety of professional ethics rules, including keeping our clients’ information confidential, complying with specific rules around solicitation and advertising, and being careful about creating attorney-client relationships unintentionally. But there is so much that can be discussed that doesn’t compromise these ethical obligations. For example, asking other lawyers about key considerations when assisting a client with a barter exchange does not disclose confidential information nor is it likely to be construed as advertising. And it is not likely that the answer would be considered legal advice if appropriate steps are taken to either control who can view the conversation and/or provide appropriate disclaimers.
Find Your Community!
Supporting resilient economy lawyers is important to SELC, which is why we have created our Fellowship Program and are developing Next Legal, an online network where attorneys, legal apprentices, law students, and other legal workers can connect, collaborate, and support each other. But you don’t have to be a SELC Fellow or wait for Next Legal to begin building your community of lawyers. If you can’t find an existing network of resilient economy attorneys in your area, consider creating one. You will likely be surprised by what happens when you take the first step. There are a growing number of attorneys who are inspired to help their communities achieve social justice through economic empowerment, and you may find that others were looking for you all along.