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Vol. 33, No. 1

Keeping a Presence in the Statehouse: Bars must work harder as number of lawyers in office declines

by Robert J. Derocher

Pennsylvania’s legal community, led by the 30,000-member Pennsylvania Bar Association, knew it had to act fast in 2005 when the idea of a sales tax on legal services began circulating in the state legislature.

The bar quickly organized a coalition of local bars and several other organizations around the state and began renewing long-standing contacts with legislators on both sides of the aisle, seeking their support to shoot down any sales tax proposals.

“At the beginning of every (legislative) session, we make appointments with new legislators to offer them information about the bar and the (legal) profession,” says Nevin Mindlin, Legislative Director of the PBA. “We’ve been doing this for awhile … and we are not partisan-driven, so we are trusted on the Hill.”

Thanks in part to that trust and knowledge, Mindlin says, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives defeated the proposed sales tax measure earlier this year by a 3-1 margin.

With the election season in full swing, many bar associations are getting ready and reviewing what they will do in the coming year to communicate and to work with state legislators. Law Days, intensified lobbying efforts and programs such as “Law School for Legislators” are becoming more commonplace among bars as they reach out to a constituency that lawyers once dominated. Many bars are also doing more to work with those lawyers who are also legislators as well as with those lawyers who are interested in pursuing public office.

Such regular interaction and education are critical to promote bar work, many bar leaders say. While state lawmakers are sometimes unfamiliar with the missions of bar associations and the needs of the legal profession, they are often the ones who make the laws and set the budgets of a multitude of departments and organizations connected to bar associations and the legal profession.

That makes any bar association investment in state legislative action and agendas worthwhile, leaders say.

Are lawyer-legislators a disappearing breed?

From the White House to the 50 statehouses—as well as the U.S. Congress—the number of lawyers in legislative positions (and the presidency) has been on the decline. In Washington, four of the last five presidents did not have law degrees, while the percentage of attorneys in the House and Senate has declined from about 48 percent in 1981 to about 43 percent today, according to statistics collected by the ABA.

Many statehouses have seen even steeper declines. In California, lawyers held 47 percent of the legislative positions in 1971; by 2007, that number was down by more than half to 23 percent. In 1960, lawyers held more than 60 percent of the legislative posts in Missouri; last year, the percentage had plummeted to about 14 percent.

Several factors explain the decline over the last half-decade, bar leaders and legislative observers say:

| Comparatively low legislative pay for what has become an increasingly full-time job at many statehouses. | More family commitments, particularly among lawyers who are caught in the generational squeeze between the increasing needs of their own parents as well as those of their children. | Large law school debts that force many attorneys to work longer hours. | More ethics and disclosure laws that in some cases require lawyers to disclose information about their clients and practices. | An increased emphasis on billable hours that puts pressure on lawyers to work longer hours.

“I’ve had many lawyers tell me that when their firms adopted hourly billing, it made them realize how valuable their time was,” says Keith Norman, longtime executive director of the Alabama State Bar. “We also lost a lot of (lawyer-legislators) in Alabama when the legislative session was changed to every year from every two years.”

Increasing—and often, unfounded—media scrutiny of lawyer-legislators, combined with a persistent dose of public lawyer bashing, have also caused many attorneys to shy away, according to Martin Healy, general counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association. Massachusetts has the highest percentage of lawyers in state legislative positions in the country: 33 percent.

“The media do a heck of a job of beating up on people—lawyers in particular,” he says. “I think that’s had a chilling effect on people who are interested in public service.”

The overall result has led to a shift that has not only reduced the number of lawyer-legislators, but has hit statehouse leadership positions as well. In Washington State, for the first time ever, there are no attorneys in the Senate’s Republican Caucus, according to Gail Stone, Director of Justice and Diversity Initiatives for the Washington State Bar Association and chair of the Government Relations Section of the National Association of Bar Executives. In Pennsylvania, for the first time in recent memory, neither the President Pro Tem of the Senate nor the Speaker of the House of Representatives—the two most powerful legislative positions—are lawyers, says Mindlin.

“It means that we have to do a whole lot more education than we often would,” says Stone. “(Nonlawyers) don’t always know a lot about things like probate code, family law and creditor/debtor law.”

Crash Course for New Legislators

Welcome to Law School for Legislators. It’s a concept that the WSBA and several other bar associations have used increasingly over the last few years to get freshmen nonlawyer legislators better acquainted with lawyers and the judiciary—and the legal issues that will face them when the session gets into full swing.

In Washington, the half-day program is more than an educational event, Stone says. Legislators have lunch with members of the state’s supreme court, where they learn more about the role of judges and discuss the state’s constitution.

“It’s a matter of spending time with them. We tell them to call us when they have questions (about legal issues),” Stone says. “We spend a lot of time working in a resource role.”

The recent adoption of term limits for Oklahoma legislators has led to a large influx of new lawmakers with limited legal knowledge. About 14 percent of state legislators are lawyers. As a result, the Oklahoma Bar Association launched its Law School for Legislators program in 2004, which was beefed up in 2006 and won a community education and outreach award last year from NABE.

Less than $2,000 was spent on the program, which reached 17 new legislators and their staffs, according to John Morris Williams, the bar’s executive director. The new lawmakers received copies of the state constitution and were addressed by the state’s chief justice as well as a former legislator who is an Oklahoma Bar member.

“It benefits us,” Williams says. “When we educate people about how to be better at lawmaking, we get a better product.”

But perhaps the most important aspect of the program, Williams says, is that it quickly introduces new legislators to the bar association, which will hopefully lead to a long-lasting relationship between them that will benefit both groups.

“It’s worth it if they know who we are and what we do,” says Williams, who also serves as the legislative liaison for the mandatory bar. “We’re just asking them to be responsible legislators … and it doesn’t hurt us to know people.”

The Ohio State Bar Association will join forces with other legal groups in the state to offer a two-hour Law School for Legislators for new lawmakers after this year’s statehouse elections, according to Bill Weisenberg, assistant executive director of the OSBA. The program will feature a panel discussion led by veteran lawyer-legislators in the state.

“They’ll talk about their experiences and how to address legal issues, and why the issue of separation of powers is so important,” he says. Ohio has been home to some particularly vitriolic state judicial campaigns over the last several years, which is one reason for the focus on separation of powers, he adds.

Bars target all legislators

Some bar associations are also finding success in single-day programs and events aimed at all legislators, not just new ones. The first NJSBA Day in Trenton (the state capital) featured meetings between New Jersey State Bar Association executives and key legislative leaders to discuss some of the issues facing the profession. The bar also presented recognition awards to legislators who have supported the bar in the past.

“It was important to connect bar leaders to members of the legislature,” says Valerie Brown, legislative counsel for the NJSBA. “We want all of the legislators to feel like they can come to the bar as a resource.”

The Pennsylvania Bar’s annual “Day on the Hill” usually focuses on a different issue each year, Mindlin says. This year, the spotlight was on promoting state funding for civil legal services for the poor.

Recognizing lawyer-legislators

While educating nonlawyer rookie legislators is important for advancing the agenda of the bar and the legal profession, bar leaders say, cultivating and maintaining good relations with existing lawyer-legislators is another critical part of that effort.

“We go out of our way to recognize lawyer-legislators and to give them kudos and highlight their accomplishments,” Healy says. “I also write a weekly public policy column to give (the bar) visibility with lawyer-legislators.”

Alabama State Bar leaders host regular breakfast meetings with their lawyer-legislator members to discuss upcoming legislative issues affecting the bar and the profession, as well as keeping legislators up-to-date on bar activities, Norman says.

‘It reacquaints everyone with the fact that they’re lawyers, too, and as lawyers, they have a responsibility to the profession,” Norman says.

Although Alabama does not have a full-time legislature, its lawmakers are paid about $40,000 in salary and per diem expenses—which can be much less than what full-time attorneys can make. In recognition of the challenge that many legislators face, Alabama State Bar President J. Mark White has appointed a task force of lawyer-legislators and other bar members “to see what we can do to be of more service to the legislators,” Norman says.

One way the Pennsylvania Bar reaches out to its legislator members is to provide regular Continuing Legal Education sessions right at the state capitol in Harrisburg for lawyer-legislators. “We’re just trying to be service-oriented,” Mindlin says.

Eye of the beholder

Whether it’s through formal or informal sessions, copies of the state constitution or chat sessions with judges, it is constant nonpartisan interaction and communication between legislators and bar associations that ultimately bolster the work of the bar.

“What’s important to us doesn’t necessarily look like it’s that important to them. It’s not very sexy. It won’t win any elections,” Stone says. “A lot of people might think, ‘Why should anyone care about this?’ ”

But Stone says it’s the bar’s job to at least get legislators aware of how issues that affect the bar and the profession can also affect others. A key part of the WSBA’s outreach effort is the assignment of a veteran legislative liaison in each bar section who is in regular contact with key legislators and committee chairmen.

The liaison in the bar’s Family Law Section, for example, has been in that position for over a decade. “It’s made him effective,” Stone says, “because they know him and trust him. It’s all about relationship building.”

The Massachusetts Bar’s Healy agrees. “It’s unglamorous work. It’s going up there on a regular basis and developing relationships with the staffs,” he says. “It’s all based on relationships.”

The Oklahoma Bar Association offices are located just a short stroll from state legislative offices, and although the unified bar faces lobbying restrictions because of Keller, Williams says, the bar has offered its meeting space to both political parties.

“I think they were surprised at first that we weren’t lobbying or telling them how they should vote,” he says. “I’m not a lobbyist, I’m a legislative liaison … and this is always a good opportunity for us to meet some people.”

And those opportunities can’t be underestimated, Mindlin and other bar legislative experts say—especially when the time comes for support of the bar and the profession.

“It’s important to try and find the connections between the profession and legislators,” says Mindlin, a former state government appointee. “I’ve been trying to get lawyers to better understand that a discussion of law begins with a discussion of public policy.”

It certainly came to the aid of the profession when Pennsylvania lawmakers scuttled the sales tax on legal services. “That was a good example,” he adds.