Matt DeVries, attorney at Nashville law firm Stites & Harbison and author of Best Practices Construction Law, serves as Membership Chair in Division 10 of the American Bar Association Forum on the Construction Industry. With the Forum's midwinter meeting coming up, we decided to talk to him about his role in the Forum, how he got started, what others can do and what attendees should expect to find at the midwinter meeting.
Just as background for people who don't know what it is, what is the ABA Forum on the Construction Industry?
The American Bar Association has various sections, just like state bar groups. At the ABA, there is a litigation section, an environmental law section and numerous others. The construction section is what is known as the Forum on the Construction Industry. There are about 6,000 members in the Forum and there are members from large firms, small firms, solo practitioners and government lawyers.
How did you go about getting started in attending the Forum’s meetings and where did you go from there?
I was a member probably for eight years, but I never went to any meetings. About four years ago, I was challenged by one of my partners to go to a meeting. And really, the first meeting, I just sat back and watched. It's kind of overwhelming because you're one attorney and you're seeing all these people who all talk to each other and you think, "How am I going to get involved and meet all these people?"
Within the Forum, there are twelve divisions or subsections. I happen to have joined Division 10, which focuses on legislation and environmental law. The reason that I joined that division was that it was a smaller group, gave me a good opportunity to get involved right away and they were a younger group of attorneys.
And, in that section, how did you work your way into a leadership role?
I got involved immediately and it took about two years to take on a leadership role. Division 10 would collect construction law updates throughout the year, by email and a listserv where people would send information. At the end of the year, they would post the information on the website. In 2006, the Division Chair and other steering committee members decided to put the updates in one document and distribute it at the Annual Meeting. So that year, 2006, I probably spent a two weeks, probably more time than I should've, and I put all those together in one document. It just so happened the next year they said "Hey Matt, you did great work, why don't we get you on the division steering committee?" So I joined the membership role of Division 10. We have since published four annual updates. Through my involvement, I was asked to speak at an annual meeting, I've participated in various webinars and I am currently working as an editor of a book on green construction law.
Why should other attorneys do something like this and what is the first step in getting past this fear of getting outside their comfort zone, making client development efforts like this?
Like you said, it's really a matter of just getting out of your comfort zone and trying new opportunities. It's hard right now in this economic time for law firms to take that step and say, "Yes, we're going to invest in these types opportunities." And I think this is precisely the time when you do need to make an investment...You know, now's the time where we have to really put an urgency in our business development efforts and think outside the box.
One thing that the Forum does well is to welcome first time attendees. There is a program at every conference where we have a welcome breakfast, we invite the first time attendees, and we hook them up with a mentor … someone who has been to a program before or who is really involved in the Forum. We want you to feel comfortable and we want to find out what your practice area is, what kind of construction law you practice. It’s our goal as the leadership to get that construction lawyer plugged into where they are really focused on their practice group or where they want to take their practice.
When I first showed up, I met people at the first meeting, started making contacts, then actually joined a division. During monthly calls, I volunteered to get involved … to write articles … to help out where needed. You know, as the saying goes, you get as much out of the Forum as you invest in the Forum.
What should people know about the Forum’s Midwinter meeting?
There's three meetings a year, there's an Annual meeting, a Fall meeting and a Midwinter meeting. Midwinter generally joins another section of the ABA the Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section. And so this particular meeting in New York is going to be an exciting conference because we are joining another group to put on a two-day conference. The focus of this conference is alternative dispute resolution, which is always a hot topic. There will be sessions on advanced negotiation strategies, as well as non-traditional dispute resolution such as neutrals, dispute boards and initial decision makers. So, not only is there going to be some great opportunities to network within the Forum, but also the Midwinter meeting is going to address a hot topic in the construction industry.
For more information on the Forum's midwinter meeting, you can take a look at this PDF brochure.