Inside Tips on Section Council and Committee Self-Nomination and Service

By Jennifer A. Shaw

[Editor's note: the original article De-Mystifying the ISBA - Sections and Committees appeared in The Challenge, the newsletter of ISBA’s Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law and has been retitled and updated slightly since its original publication.]

As many an ISBA President has said, the sections and committees are the lifeblood of this organization. For many of us, though, until we become more involved in the ISBA, how one gets appointed to the committees and sections and what those groups actually DO are huge mysteries. Often, this presents as the old chicken-and-egg situation.

Unfortunately, when we are admitted to the Illinois Bar, we aren’t also handed a manual explaining the mysteries of the practice and of the ISBA. Like practicing law, involvement in the ISBA can feel like learning oral history. If you don’t know or can’t find the oral historians, the process can feel overwhelming.

This is particularly true for lawyers of color and female lawyers. The lack of mentorship in the practice can often spill over into involvement in the ISBA. While there is no shortage of people willing and able to steer “newbies” through the process—knowing who to ask and what to ask of them is the real challenge.

ISBA members serve on the various sections and committees at the pleasure of the ISBA President. Each spring, the President-Elect appoints individuals to serve for one-year terms, running from the upcoming annual meeting to the following annual meeting (June through June). ISBA members are encouraged to self-nominate and to nominate other lawyers for places on the sections and committees.

Nomination forms can be found in the fall editions the Illinois Bar Journal. Generally, they are half-page forms that list each of the sections and standing committees. In addition, nominations can be made online.

The ISBA Web site provides thumbnail sketches of each of the sections and committees under the “Member Groups” heading. These sketches allow people to learn more about the purpose and the work of each group. Members of each of the groups are identified; statements of the mission of each of the committees are enumerated; practice pointers are highlighted; and links to newsletters and other valuable resources are provided.

The nomination forms allow people to list their first three preferences for appointment. Certainly, some committees and sections are extremely popular and, accordingly, it becomes more challenging to receive an appointment to those sections and committees. Other groups, however, are always looking for new members.

ISBA leadership has demonstrated a strong desire backed with decisive action to improve the diversity of the sections and committees. To that end, the nomination form also includes space for people to identify their minority status. While some may consider this intrusive, it allows the President-Elect to ensure that the sections and committees are inclusive of all minorities. Importantly, minority status does not just include gender or race. Lawyers with disabilities or those who identify themselves as members of other minorities are also encouraged to indicate their status as well.

Meetings are open to all ISBA members regardless of membership on the committee or section. Attending meetings prior to appointment is another excellent way to garner an appointment to the group of your choice.

The President-Elect sends appointment letters to each new member of the committee in the late spring. Upon receipt, you must respond to accept your appointment. Once you have accepted, the fun begins.

Sections and committees meet several times throughout the year, with most groups meeting four to six times. Of those meetings, one occurs at the Annual Meeting and one occurs at the Mid-Year Meeting. Typically, most other meetings are held at the ISBA Chicago Regional Office, located at 20 South Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois.

Meetings are scheduled fairly far in advance, allowing time to adjust schedules. While attendance at meetings is not mandatory, the work of the sections and committees generally takes place at those meetings. Members have the option to attend in person or by teleconference. For those members who must travel to the meeting, the ISBA reimburses for mileage or airfare and up to a certain amount for hotel stays.

The chair and ISBA staff work together to set the agenda for each meeting. Agendas and the various attachments are provided in advance, together with the information necessary to join the meeting via teleconference.

Although serving on the committee is often its own reward, members receive free CLE credits for substantive discussions that occur during the meetings.

Working with committees and subcommittees allows members to help create and speak at CLE seminars, design and tape Public Access television shows, draft proposed legislation, review pending legislation, edit newsletters and make a difference in the legal community.

The work of the many groups is as diverse as their interests are, and the opportunities available to members are too numerous to be listed in this article. The simple fact is, the sections and committees provide something for everyone -- from Animal Law to Business Law and from Minority and Women Participation to Delivery of Legal Services.

Look for the nomination forms this fall. We’re waiting for you.