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Vol. 28, No. 4

Lights, camera, action: Preparing members to testify before the legislature

by Valerie Brown

You have prepared for months, sending letters to key legislators and organizing coalitions of groups to support your organization’s top legislative priorities. You’ve met with the governor’s counsel and advisors to smooth passage of the bill in the executive branch, and now the bill is ready for its first hearing in the state legislature. You’ve arranged, too, for your expert on the topic, a bar member, to impress the committee with his or her knowledge of this area of the law and bill. Is your key witness ready?

Oral testimony is a critical component of successful advocacy. Witness preparation is an essential part of a winning legislative strategy. This article covers how to prepare your witness for his or her debut before a legislative hearing.

Practice makes perfect

As legislative counsel, you must let members know in advance of the date and time of the hearing, and what to expect. Consider developing a yearly legislative orientation program in which you train members of your organization not only about association policy but also in the do’s and don’ts of how to present testimony before the legislature. Engage members in role play by offering real-life examples of how to avoid pitfalls, and give them a chance to practice the skills they learn.

Develop a brochure that you can put in the mail once the workshop is over and/or place on your association’s Web site to advise members about the legislative process and the how to’s involved. Update the material as needed. Nothing looks worse than stale or outdated information, particularly in the legislative arena, where information is power.

How to testify

Testimony, both oral and written, should be coordinated through the legislative counsel’s office, and copies distributed to key leadership in your association and wherever else is appropriate. Call committee aides to ascertain the witness lineup for the day of the hearing, those supporting and those opposing the bill, and the number of copies of testimony you will need to distribute at the legislative hearing. Be sure to have extra copies of the testimony to give to both print and broadcast media and other organizations.

Whether your witness is personally familiar with every member of the committee or is a novice, it is important that you as legislative counsel inform the witness about the members of the committee—their backgrounds, party affiliation, occupation, etc.—and that the witness carefully review this information. Knowing the audience is critical, as this can prove invaluable in identifying mutual interests and sensibilities. For example, your witness is a patent attorney addressing a committee whose members consist of several patent attorneys.

And now it’s time to testify. By following these simple steps, the witness can persuasively make his or her case clearly and concisely. If you are legislative counsel yourself, then these are great tips to pass along to your witness.

First, introduce yourself. Let legislators know who you are and whom you represent. State your experience that is relevant to the bill about which you are testifying, without excessive self-promotion. Second, state the association’s position on the bill. Are you testifying for it or against it? Should amendments be made to the bill? Third, state your case. Why is this issue important? Whom will it affect? What will the ramifications be? Fourth, if possible and appropriate, offer alternative solutions as approved by the governing body of your organization. Finally, close by reiterating the association’s position and offering to answer any questions.

To help make a favorable impression at a committee hearing, it is important to be short and concise, and to understand that legislators hear countless hours of testimony. While your testimony is interesting and exciting, keep in mind that everyone who testifies feels the same way. Be clear. If you use a complex legal term, explain it to members of the legislature and most importantly, know the issues involved. Nothing can be a substitute for preparation and knowledge. It is also important not to read your testimony verbatim. The best way to capture the audience’s attention is to illustrate your testimony with real-life examples of individuals or businesses that will be affected by the legislation.

In answering questions from the committee, it is critical not to fudge on the facts. If you are uncertain about how to answer a question, offer to supply the information at a later time. Finally, be sure to distribute those extra copies you brought—one for each member of the committee, for members of the print and broadcast media, and for others. Most legislators will keep a copy of your testimony on file for future reference.

Meeting with legislators

In addition to committee hearings, one-on-one meetings are another great way to reach legislators. If your witness has the opportunity to meet with legislators in person, it is important that he or she keep the following guidelines in mind:

Learn as much as you can about the legislator before you visit: his or her party affiliation, issues of interest, legislative committee involvement, etc. Bar association legislative counsels can provide such information upon request. This information can help you anticipate how a legislator may respond to your concerns and what types of questions he or she may ask.

Know the issues involved and be prepared. A legislator should never walk away from a meeting with you feeling that you wasted his or her time.

Prepare talking points to facilitate the discussion. You may share these points as a written list with the legislator, either in advance of the meeting or later.

State your association’s position and the reasoning behind the position.

Conclude the meeting with a summary of your association’s key points and try to determine where the legislator stands on the issue.

Follow up the meeting with a thank-you letter that reiterates your association’s position. Consult with legislative counsel and staff before you send the letter.

Coaching members to put their best foot forward in representing your association can be highly rewarding. Preparation, mutual cooperation, and communication are keys to success.