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Vol. 34, No. 6

Beating the drum for more lawyer-legislators: One bar’s success story

by Steve Boeckman

The seed of an idea heard at the 2007 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco burst into full bloom late last winter when the Iowa State Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division held its first Legislative Leadership Academy.

The academy, held in late January at ISBA headquarters in advance of the ISBA’s annual lawyer-legislator dinner, received such a good response that YLD leaders plan to make it an annual event. Although the idea originated at the YLD Affiliate Team’s Best of the Best Projects panel discussion in San Francisco, it first got its legs last summer when the ISBA YLD Executive Council began discussing ways to provide a benefit to YLD members, according to Matt Hektoen, a young lawyer who chaired the event.

Jeana Goosmann, who served as YLD president from July 2009 to June of this year, puts it this way: “As a YLD officer, we attend the Board of Governors’ meetings. And by attending those meetings, I’ve realized how much time we spend on legislative issues.

“In addition, as an officer, I attended the lawyer-legislator dinners and noticed how few lawyer-legislators there really are, while at the same time, we tend to reach out to the lawyer-legislators first to help us with legislative matters.

“The YLD Executive Council discussed this and decided we wanted to encourage lawyers and, in particular young lawyers, by providing them information in a nonpartisan manner on how they might be able to balance the practice of law while serving.”

Iowa, as with many states, has only a fraction of its lawmakers as attorneys. James Carney, ISBA’s contracted legislative counsel and one of the speakers at the academy, told the 60-plus attendees that approximately 15 percent of state legislators nationwide are attorneys—a number that has been steadily declining from 22 percent slightly more than 30 years ago. Iowa had 15 lawyer-legislators in its last legislative session, a mere 10 percent of the 50 senators and 100 representatives who comprise the state’s legislative body.

Yet state legislatures need lawyers as members, says Kraig Paulsen, a lawyer-legislator who is the minority leader for Iowa’s House of Representatives. “Legislators like to hear from attorneys because of the different knowledge base and training they have, and the different ways they analyze issues,” he said in a recent article published in the ISBA’s Iowa Lawyer magazine. “When legislators get into hypertechnical discussions about a particular wording or phraseology, lawyers bring a unique perspective because they deal with the law every day in an intimate way.”

Emphasis on practicality

The focus of the academy, which started at 3:30 on Wednesday afternoon with wine and cheese and continued until 6 p.m., centered on practicality. Hektoen says the goal was to provide attorneys with a basic understanding of the ethical issues that must be addressed during the run for office, how to ask friends and others for campaign contributions, and how to split the duties of public office with those of private practice.

Carney told those attending in person at the ISBA’s headquarters building in Des Moines and the half dozen or so who joined by phone that there are a number of reasons that lawyers should consider elective office, including:

| satisfying a desire for public service, | learning the legislative process, | learning administrative law and how government really works, | developing professional business relationships that will potentially result in an expanded client base, | supplementing income from private practice, and | developing oral skills in debate and public speaking.

However, he added, these benefits need to be balanced with reasons lawyers should not seek elective office, such as:

| extended time away from their practices, | inability to develop a client base and practice, | loss of income, | delay in professional development, and | spending time away from family.

Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro echoed some of the reasons Carney listed for running for elective office. It’s a great way to network and to expand your horizons, he told attendees. It’s also a great way to learn the art of compromise and of putting together agreements and selling them.

He also told those in attendance that elections are not easy. “You put your name on the ballot and you become a very public figure,” he said. “You think you are doing what is right, but you are subject to attacks.”

Charlie Smithson, director and legal counsel for the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, provided the attendees with some of the nuts and bolts of staying in compliance with state law when running a campaign. Among them is the requirement to set up a campaign committee, pick a treasurer, and have a name for the campaign once the candidate has more than $750 in campaign activities; to make sure that all print and Web-based materials have “Paid for by (committee name)” conspicuously printed on them somewhere; and to ensure that campaign signs aren’t posted on public property—between the street and sidewalk, on utility poles, in ditches, and other such areas.

However, it was the lawyer-legislators who provided the real let’s-get-down-to-business advice for the attendees, who ranged in age from law school students to senior partners. In response to a question about how to tell the firm you want to be a legislator, Tyler Olson acknowledged it’s a “tough discussion.” You have to keep files separate, he said. In his case, the firm had to limit the files he could see to prevent any conflicts of interest between clients and his legislative work.

In regard to a similar question about how one survives financially, Nate Willems, who practices with a small firm a couple of hours northeast of the capital city, replied that during the legislative session, about all he can do is meet his overhead. There’s the $25,000 plus a per diem allowance that rank-and-file legislators receive for the 100- to 110-day legislative sessions. In addition, he is in the office on Fridays, and may stop in for an hour and a half on Monday mornings before making the two-hour drive to Des Moines. (Iowa legislators normally meet only Monday through Thursday during the sessions.)

It’s critical to have a good staff at home, added Eric Palmer, a solo practitioner who lives about 45 minutes from the state capitol. Like Willems, he spends Fridays and Monday mornings in the law office, and has been known to run home on a weekday evening if he has something pressing. Fortunately, judges appreciate having lawyers in the legislature and will do their best to work around a lawyer-legislator’s schedule, he said.

In response to a question about financing a campaign, Olson said he’s a big believer in shoe leather. Willems, who was recently married when he ran for the Iowa House, garnered a few laughs from the audience when he said he pulled out his wedding invitation list and asked the people on it for money. “You have to ask for money, then let the awkward silence exist,” he said. “You have to ask and let people say no.”

It’s extremely important to have a supportive spouse, he added.

Pulling it all together

Hektoen, the chair, says that at times he found his efforts in pulling the academy together “similar to herding cats.” The first step was crafting a broad storyline of the purpose of the event, then finding speakers to fit the mold, he says. Surprisingly, the majority of the work was in coordinating with the speakers and the ISBA staff to find a day and time that worked best.

He is particularly grateful to lobbyist Carney for locking in the secretary of state and for ensuring that the lawyer-legislators put the event on their calendars. He also thanks a number of other YLD members and the bar staff for their help in making the event successful.

Despite the herding-cats nature of organizing the academy, Hektoen estimates it only took about 20 to 30 people hours to pull it off. In the process, he and other YLD leaders learned a few things that they believe are crucial to making such a program work.

First, he advises, Advertise! Advertise! Advertise! You want a large crowd for your VIP speakers to make them feel it’s worth their while.

Keep the event as nonpartisan as possible by inviting legislators from both sides of the aisle.

Finally, provide basic information about how to run a campaign, how to balance the practice of law with public office, etc. “We started with the premise that the attendees knew very little about the specifics of running a campaign, and then crafted our event around that,” Hektoen says.

Although costs are always a consideration with any bar event, it really wasn’t much of an obstacle for the YLD’s academy, which was free to any lawyers who wanted to attend and earned them 1.75 credit hours of CLE. The total outlay was between $200 and $300, not including the value of staff or volunteer time. The speakers provided their services at no charge. The only costs were for refreshments and publication of the event materials.


Hektoen, who acknowledges that he has “toyed with the idea of running for public office for many years and may do so in the near future,” says he can’t quote specific comments about the academy’s success. However, the general atmosphere was that the attendees enjoyed it and felt it was worthwhile.

Carney says everyone he talked with afterward thought it was an excellent program. In fact, he says, he had several lawyers inquire about taking steps to run for public office. Best of all, a number of the people attending the first program asked that it be repeated, and the lawyer-legislators have volunteered to participate again.

The real proof will be in the pudding, as the old saying goes. Iowa elects all 100 of its representatives and some of its senators in November. Time will tell how many of those going to the state capitol in January will be lawyer-legislators.