I am a principal in a small patent law firm based in Chicago. We have developed a national and international practice. You can, too, regardless of the size of your firm.

We go to places like New York, Los Angeles, Houston—and Munich, Beijing, and Tokyo—for meetings of the American Bar Association (ABA), American IP Law Association (AIPLA), and International Association for the Protection of IP (AIPPI).

Why do we travel to meet with fellow professionals in far-away cities? It’s because we value relationships. Law and business are relational. We work with people we know and trust, with local associates who know the turf, the players, and the practice. Similarly, our best clients come to us as referrals from other professionals—people who know us and our capabilities.

I wouldn’t trade those professional experiences—those relationships—for anything. Understanding is obtained by meeting people in their own countries and cities. A fuller perspective is gained in company, as light is scintillated through the facets of a diamond. I’ve met an Israeli professional woman on an AIPPI bus tour of the Hungarian countryside, and I’ve seen India not just with my own eyes but also through those of my lawyer friends from Mexico. No ordinary tour would have allowed me to sing karaoke with distinguished Japanese patent attorneys in an out-of-the-way club in Tokyo.

Stand before federal judges and CEOs

I am most grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to travel, to meet people from all walks of life, and to be engaged in interesting legal matters. For me, the American Dream is real: I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and went to a public land-grant university in Iowa. It is my profession that has taken me from one-room schools to world capitals and allowed me to meet people from farmers to federal judges.

A lawyer’s skills are many. The legal scholar must know the law and be able to apply it. The advocate must understand the perspectives of the judges and jurors who decide cases. The international IP attorney must know local and foreign associates and experts in various areas of law and technology. The rainmaker must attract clients and referrals.

It is written:

“Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings; they will not serve before officials of low rank.”

Prov. 22:29 (NIV).

Legal skills can be gained and improved by participating in professional meetings. When you make these skills your own, you will stand before federal judges and CEOs.

My firm doesn’t pay for that

When I meet my peers from other top law firms, they sometimes look at me wistfully and say, “I wish I could go to meetings like you, but my firm doesn’t pay for that.”

Yes, it’s true, high-paid lawyers tell me that they can’t go to professional meetings because their firms don’t pay the cost.

It is not the purpose of this blog to discuss whether or to what extent firms should pay for professional meetings. But I will venture this: If your professional activity helps you develop business, your firm will pay you for that outcome.

There are three levels of involvement in professional organizations. One is to pay dues and receive newsletters. Another is to attend an occasional meeting. A third is to make an active contribution through leadership as an officer or committee chair and through making and attending presentations.

Some years ago, when I was a partner in a large general practice law firm, I mentioned my bar association work to a distinguished senior partner—a skilled trial lawyer who often tried cases for the rainmakers in the firm. A far-away look appeared in his eyes, and he commented, “You know, our founding partner did twice as much bar association work as any other lawyer I ever knew…and he got five times as much business from it!”

So here’s the thing: If you want to go to a professional meeting, go! Pay for it yourself, if you must, for you will be the first to reap the benefits.