Vol. 40, No. 5

The bar president as advocate: Expert advice on working with legislators

by Marilyn Cavicchia

With fewer and fewer lawyer-legislators these days—and much at stake—bar associations’ lobbying efforts have taken on increased importance, according to Cale Battles, government relations coordinator at the State Bar of Wisconsin.

But it’s also important to realize that “The legislative process does not occur in the snap of a finger,” Battles told attendees at the 2016 ABA Bar Leadership Institute. In fact, it can take at least a full legislative session, if not two or three, to see substantial results from your lobbying efforts, Battles said—so, how can you reconcile that with the fact that the bar president’s term is just one year?

As with so many other projects and plans, one key is to start early, Battles said: Well before the presidential term starts, the incoming leader should meet with the executive director, the government relations director if there is one, and any other staff who are involved in such efforts.

But, as important as planning is, it only goes so far, said Thomas M. Susman, director of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office: “Starting now doesn’t ensure that you will even see results, much less success, during ‘your year.’”

Focus, focus, focus

One important part of an incoming president’s first legislative planning meeting, Battles said, is to “manage expectations” and pare down a big goal to one that it more realistic and achievable.

But do have a goal, Susman said: “At least have an idea of where you want to go.”

Focus is critical, Susman added. For example, in the past year, the ABA was successful in its efforts to help secure increased funding for Legal Services Corp. One key to this success, Susman noted, is that the ABA’s lobbying efforts were not geared toward “more legal services funding”—which would be too general—but instead specified $10 million in additional funding for LSC.

Likewise, he said, if you wanted to press for criminal justice reform, you should set one goal within that broad arena, such as asking that mandatory minimum sentencing laws be repealed. If your bar has a government relations director or professional lobbyist, Susman added, he or she can help you define your goal and the steps to try to achieve it.

Relationships matter

Be aware, however, that whatever goal and focus you select may be completely different from what the legislature is working on—if they’re even in session during your term.

“You need to be agile enough to move in the direction that the legislature is pointing,” Susman said, noting that if this direction gives you nothing law-related to work with, then you should consider your term to be a time for building connections and relationships that could be important later. Reach out to your legislators, and legislative committee members in particular, and encourage them to think of the bar association as a resource and an asset—even if there’s nothing in it for you.

In fact, Susman said, at the beginning of each legislative session, he sends a letter to each new member of Congress, not asking for help with any ABA priorities, but instead asking how the ABA can help them get up to speed on law-related matters. Usually, he added, a few dozen letters will result in just a couple of calls—but they’re “happy calls” that help establish productive relationships.

Another important topic for the meeting in which you set your focus and/or goal: “Who do you know, how do you know them, and how can they help?” It is not unheard of, Battles said, for the president to know an important legislator but not to mention this relationship because he or she doesn’t realize how useful that connection could be.

Understand changes in technology—but keep it simple

The whole arena of lobbying has “really evolved in the last four years,” Battles said, with the rise of “social media guerilla advocacy.”

With so many smartphones out there, he added, legislators now understand that someone, somewhere is taking and sharing video 24 hours a day, which has made them a lot more careful in how they interact, including with lobbyists.

Don’t overlook social media as a way to get the bar’s positions across, Susman said; just about every office on Capitol Hill, for example, has a social media account. Even if a particular legislator isn’t closely tracking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other platforms, he noted, his or her young staff members certainly are.

But just because technology is so readily available and effective in some cases, that doesn’t mean it’s always the best way for you to reach legislators, Battles believes; as handy as email is, he thinks the best approach is “simply a phone call”—or best yet, an in-person visit.

What to expect when you testify

Whether you’re testifying before the legislature or talking by phone, Battles advised, realize that “you have five minutes to make your pitch”—which certainly lends strength to the idea that advance preparation is key.

Not only should you have a tightly crafted message that you’ve practiced delivering, but you should also be aware of what you’re walking into, Battles said: Typically, the legislators will be sitting up on a platform—and literally looking down on the person who is testifying.

Many bar leaders, even those who are litigators, find this unnerving, Battles noted; if you’re not comfortable with the setting or with the issue area that the bar needs someone to speak about, it’s perfectly OK for the president to “punt” to another bar leader or member who is more expert, he said.

But there’s one aspect that you can’t “punt,” and it’s along the same lines as writing a president’s page and attending a lot of events: For that one short year, you are the face of the bar association. Even with a great team, a careful approach, and lots of preparation, Battles said, “You have to be comfortable with knowing that there will be unpopular political decisions that you as a leader will have to make.”