For years, many bar organizations and bar leaders across the country have noted a decline in the number of lawyer-legislators, and have said that this trend is alarming not only because it means priorities such as judicial funding and access to justice may be overlooked, but also because the “lawyer mind” lends itself well to the kind of work involved in holding public office.
“Attorneys, by virtue of their training and being issue spotters and problem solvers, are uniquely positioned to make a difference in public service,” says Jason Hensley, executive director of the North Carolina Bar Association.
Brian Rosenthal, president of the Arkansas Bar Association, says lawyers are also adept at seeing how various rules, laws, regulations, orders, and proposals interrelate in ways that might not be as obvious to people without legal training. “Lawyers are always thinking about what the consequences or the ripple effect might be, and how it affects other laws that are in place,” he explains.
In 2017, the NCBA debuted its Public Service Academy, an intensive training program held over two weekends, for lawyers who are interested in running for public office. This past fall, the bar offered the academy for the second time, and anticipates continuing to do so on odd years. In North Carolina, Hensley explains, all but municipal elections are held on even years, so an odd-year academy allows prospective candidates to learn how to run, and then get the wheels in motion to do so.
This idea has since taken root at two other bars: the Tennessee Bar Association, which held its first such academy in 2018, and the aforementioned Arkansas Bar Association, whose inaugural academy (also planned for odd years) kicked off in fall 2019. TBA Executive Director Joycelyn Stevenson notes that the bar is still determining future plans for its academy, but that positive response in 2018 made it clear that it was worth repeating in 2019, over two weekends in October and November.
Both the Tennessee bar and Arkansas bar cite the North Carolina Bar Association as the source of this idea and note that the NCBA has been generous in sharing its materials and advice. The Tennessee bar also provided a training session for the Arkansas bar, to help it see more clearly how a public service academy can work.
Rosenthal first heard of the public service academy idea not through the typical channels, but via a novel effort he undertook as president-elect: He sent postcards to bar presidents across the country asking them for one thing he should do and one thing he shouldn’t do. Caryn Coppedge McNeill, then president of the NCBA, wrote back and recommended that he start a public service academy.
Jay Robbins, director of government relations at the Arkansas bar, says the new Public Service Academy has been a natural fit with the work he was already doing. “It is important that I establish relationships, communicate effectively and carry out the association’s advocacy efforts with not only association members, committees and sections, but also the members of the executive branch, judicial branch and the General Assembly,” he says. “The Public Service Academy is designed to help in these areas as well.”