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How and Why I Went for It

In August, I assumed the role of chair of the American Bar Association Section of Litigation. With 400,000 members, the ABA is the largest volunteer professional association in the world, and the Section is the largest ABA entity, boasting 50,000 of those members as its own. The Section has existed for 42 years, and I am the ninth female chair. Women colleagues have asked, "How did you do that?" I respond to that question below, but because I think the more relevant question is "Why?" I provide that answer as well.

As a young partner, eight years out of law school, I saw an ad seeking editors for the Section publication, Litigation News. I was an avid Litigation News reader and thought it would be fun to write articles focused on trends and developments of importance to litigators. I also thought it would help me keep abreast of topics about which I believed I should be knowledgeable. I asked my mentor (although we really did not call them mentors in the early '90s) if he thought it was a good idea. After receiving an encouraging response, I attended my first editorial board meeting. I was immediately hooked. The camaraderie and intellectual stimulation seduced me.

As an associate editor, I often interviewed chairs of Section committees on matters relevant to their work. This led me to volunteer to become a subcommittee chair of the Section's Business Torts Committee, which I joined because of its relevance to my practice as a commercial litigator. After a while I was asked to chair that committee. Three years later, another leadership role in the Section was offered to me. One position has led to the next, and 23 years after answering that ad, here I am.

In a nutshell, I never set a goal to become the Section's chair; I simply volunteered to do something that interested me, did a good job and continued to volunteer and work hard when asked to take on additional responsibilities. I did apply to become a Section officer, but only after I felt comfortable that I had gained the experience to be effective in such a role.

Section of Litigation leadership takes a lot of time and attention. So why have I devoted a large part of my life to Section endeavors? Here are some reasons:

  1. I like the work. The Section helps lawyers be better litigators and develop their business through its publications, CLE activities and networking events. The Section also does important work to eliminate homelessness through pro bono legal clinics; improves access to justice for the underserved (like children and military families); and promotes diversity and inclusion in our profession through a variety of its programs.
  2. I like the people. Even if I loved the work, I would not do it if I did not like the people.
  3. Involvement in the Section has made me a better lawyer.
  4. Section work has helped me develop a professional network which has resulted in referral business and enabled me to refer clients to other lawyers whom I knew would do a great job for them.
  5. I feel as though I am making an impact. It is "nerdily thrilling" to have made contributions which have resulted in changes to the Federal Rules. It is personally gratifying to be part of an association that trains lawyers and judges on how to deal with children as witnesses and assure that they have a voice in cases involving their well-being and future. Getting involved with programs that promote diversity in the profession and help the homeless achieve independence is also incredibly fulfilling.

I share my "whys" with you to make a simple point. Volunteering at something related to your profession and which you truly enjoy often has many collateral benefits that enrich your personal and professional life. Consider volunteer opportunities in your field. If you believe you would like spending time on them and could excel at the work, go for it. Someday you may land at the top of the organization.

Nancy Scott Degan is the 2014 – 2015 Chair of the Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association.

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