Although lawyers make up 43 percent of Congress, and 60 percent of the U.S. Senate, according to Governing magazine, “[s]ince 1976, the number of lawyers in legislatures has declined by nearly a quarter, from more than 22 percent of all lawmakers to less than 17 percent.”
There, of course, is a natural path from lawyer to legislator. But the low pay, travel, time commitment, and mud slinging that we see on TV and the internet turn many lawyers away from public service.
The current political landscape also causes lawyers to be uninterested in participating in politics at any level, whether it means lobbying, running campaigns, fundraising, or attending political functions.
It’s a mistake…
I know there’s a notion that there should be fewer lawyers in politics, but remember that many “lawyers” in office are not practicing lawyers, have never been practicing lawyers, and have no clue how the law works. They have law degrees, but they don’t have clients. In halls where laws are advocated and passed, I say the more practicing (and former practicing) lawyers, the better.
Lawyers think the same as non-lawyers, that politics is something that goes on in Washington or their state capitol. But politics affects everything in our court system, and statutory schemes that govern your practice area.
And the point?
Practicing law is not solely about the pleadings and arguments, it’s about advocating to those that make law, or are running for office to make law. Where does most criminal and personal injury law come from? Prosecutors, cops, and insurance companies. Nothing wrong with them trying to make law, but are you involved in this process?
The old “call your legislator” may be meaningless to you, but it wouldn’t be if the person on the other end of the call was someone whose campaign you worked on, someone you raised money for, made phone calls for, or encouraged to run. Candidates and elected officials listen to those that give them money, but also to those they trust -– people from their small circle of advisors -– paid and unpaid.
Many lawyers stay out of politics because they don’t have the money to donate. But politicians aren’t just looking for money. They need votes, places to speak, places to put signs, advice from those in the know. They need advice. They may have an interest in an issue. The first time you hear a politician ask a question that’s right out of your mouth to your adversary at a hearing, you’ll understand.
Participate enough, help out with enough campaigns, and you’ll see a lot of the same people. And I’m not talking about the Biglaw show where the associates are “invited” to the conference room at 5:30 to meet some candidate and fill up the room. Get involved at a deeper level and you’ll develop relationships that can open important doors for you and your clients.
Today’s city commissioner is tomorrow’s U.S. Senator. Just ask former West Miami City Council Member and U.S. Senator (and possible Vice-Presidential Candidate) Marco Rubio. You think the people that helped start his career have their calls put through in Washington? And that mayoral candidate you got a speaking invitation for at your Bar Association dinner? She now needs someone to help her daughter with a legal matter, and she remembers what type of law you practice. You assume she knows a bunch of lawyers that do what you do, but she doesn’t.
It’s not solely about your ability to donate, it’s about your ability to be relevant to the candidate or elected official. Next time you are invited to an event, if you can’t donate, (or don’t want to yet) be up front about it, and let the host know you’d like to meet the candidate. It’s better than sneaking out without leaving a check.
Running for office is a life-changing commitment, but short of that, there are a lot of ways to be involved in politics -– to be important to those who are in and running for office, and make some important, life-long connections in the process. It’s not only good for your profession, but it’s good for you as a professional.
Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.