Vol. 42, No. 5

Making the connection: Quick tips on legislative advocacy

by Marilyn Cavicchia

How can you make your bar association’s lobbying efforts as effective as possible? Be clear, be realistic—and don’t be a stranger.

That’s according to two experts in bar association lobbying and government relations: Holly O’Grady Cook, principal deputy director in the ABA Governmental Affairs Office, and Leah G. Johnson, assistant executive director at the South Carolina Bar. In a fast-paced program at the 2018 ABA Bar Leadership Institute, Cook and Johnson shared their tips on how to advance the bar’s priorities—and why you should connect with your legislators now, and not just when you need something.

Clarity is key

Clarity begins with making a plan, Cook said: Even if you don’t write it all down, you should think carefully about how you will approach lobbying and which issues really matter to the bar. And for every issue that the bar does decide to pursue, Cook said, “Know what you’re asking”—and be specific.

You might have a very short window of opportunity with a particular legislator or on a particular issue, she explained, and a specific message will be more powerful than a more general one. For example, Cook said, if you want the legislator to support legal aid, make sure you identify how big the current gap is and the scope of the problems that arise from the unmet needs. Take a look at the current political climate and set a dollar figure that is realistic but represents a bit of a push—realizing that you might not secure as big an increase as you ask for.

Make your pitch to the legislator not just clear but also compelling, Cook recommended: What is the problem, what is the solution—and how is solving the problem a “win” not just for the bar but also for constituents and for the legislator? “If all you’re thinking about is your interests,” she said, “You will miss your shot.”

Policy is another area where clarity is essential: For example, who is authorized to speak for the association about legislative priorities, either with legislators themselves or to the media? If the bar has a lobbyist or governmental affairs director, Cook said, the best approach may be to have a policy that says the president can designate or authorize that person to speak.

Johnson added that another important consideration to build into the bar’s policy is that whoever is lobbying for the bar will have times when they need to negotiate quickly—such as when a legislator rejects the bar’s proposal but may be receptive to a compromise—and can’t run things by the board or the president. Building a certain amount of trust into the policy gives the lobbyist some much-needed protection and allows him or her to “pivot” as is often required, Johnson said.

It’s smart to always have a plan B, Johnson added, and it’s also good to know your limits so the bar can “live to fight another day”—that is, don’t waste time and burn bridges by lobbying for everything that sounds like a good idea at the time. Remember that the legislator can only take up a certain number of bills during a particular session, she advised, and think carefully about which issues should take precedence.

Know who the bar’s allies are on a particular issue, Cook said, and know—and acknowledge—the opposing point of view. Working with allies might involve forming coalitions and strategizing together, but Cook believes each stakeholder should then refer back to their organization’s policies. For example, she said, the ABA will often strategize with other like-minded organizations but will usually not sign joint letters—its general policy is that it will issue its own letter under its own name.

Make connections long before you need them

In the old days, Johnson said, the model for talking to a legislator may have been to call their office when there was an issue to discuss, drive there, meet for 20 minutes, and call it done. Not anymore: Cook and Johnson both said it’s important to get to know your legislators well in advance of any issues, and Johnson said social media provides a perfect opportunity.

If the legislator is active on social media, she advised, see what they share about themselves there: What do they do in their free time? What do they care about? Did their grandchild recently have a birthday? All of these can be used to “open up a more organic conversation” and put the bar’s lobbyist and the legislator on “more genuine, equal footing,” Johnson said. And don’t worry about seeming invasive or creepy—in her experience, legislators who share such things love having a chance to talk about them rather than just sticking to politics.

This research and friendly cultivation (perhaps even taking the legislator out for coffee or lunch, particularly if he or she is a lawyer-legislator with whom you are somewhat familiar already) should be ongoing, Johnson said, and certainly “before the big thing hits.”

Another area where social media can help is grassroots efforts, which do still matter, Johnson said, noting that legislators are very aware of whether or not they’re getting calls about a particular issue.

Also think in terms of “grass-tops,” Johnson added: Are there bar members who have “higher profile” relationships with legislators, such as, say, having children who are on the same soccer team? Don’t expect members to tell you about these potentially useful connections, Johnson advised—ask around, and perhaps use social media to see who is connected to whom.

Cultivate your lawyer-legislators

Like many other bar associations, the South Carolina Bar keeps a close eye on the number of lawyer-legislators in its state. In fact, the bar reached out to the state ethics commission to ask about appropriate ways to help support lawyer-legislators. A task force was formed, which has since become a committee.

The group advocated for, and was able to secure a period of immunity starting 30 days before a lawyer-legislator’s term begins to 30 days afterward, so that he or she will not have to appear in court while in office.

The bar also worked with a clinic at one of the state’s law schools to arrange for law students to serve as clerks for legislators, to read information provided by lobbying groups and give their analysis.

A new idea that was a big hit, Johnson said, was a reception for the entire general assembly, following the governor’s state of the state address. It was the social highlight of the legislative session, she noted, and it allowed the bar to have some face time even with legislators who are not lawyers.

It’s important, Johnson explained, not to focus so exclusively on lawyer-legislators that the other legislators feel slighted—you don’t want to encourage the already natural tendency that some have, to oppose bills simply because the lawyer-legislators are in favor.

“Go talk to the nonlawyer legislators in the corner,” Johnson advised. “Often, they feel left out.”

(Cook and Johnson’s handout contains a wealth of additional resources. Also, it’s worth noting that at the time of BLI, the annual ABA Day in Washington was on the near horizon. For more information about this year’s ABA Day—which was held April 10-12, 2018—or about plans for the 2019 event, please visit the ABA Day website.)