Vol. 44, No. 3

Through public service academies, bars encourage lawyers to run for office

By Marilyn Cavicchia

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.”

Starting small, by design

All three bars select academy participants through an application process. At North Carolina, attendance is free, whereas both Tennessee and Arkansas charge a nominal fee. All three limit the class size to about 20 to 25, which Hensley says allows intensive interaction among attendees and between attendees and the faculty. All three define public service fairly broadly. For example, while it might be assumed that the goal is to encourage a lawyer to run for the state or federal legislature, all three academies address other forms of service as well, such as city council, school board, or judicial seats.

“We’re trying to focus on really getting started,” says Berkley Schwarz, Director of Public Policy & Government Affairs at the TBA, “going from smaller races and then working your way up.”

Maggie Benson, co-chair for the Arkansas bar’s first Public Service Academy and also co-chair of the Arkansas Bar Commission on Diversity, notes that programs of this type also offer a way to encourage promising candidates who perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have run for office.

“I saw working on this program as an opportunity to encourage diverse lawyers to apply for the academy,” she says, “which I hope in turn encourages diverse Arkansas lawyers to run for office.”

The Arkansas academy’s other co-chair, Nathan C. Looney, notes that he and Benson have a history of working together on state and federal political action committees geared toward trying to recruit and elect what they see as better candidates within their state.

How the academies work

All three academies occur over two weekends, with each session beginning on a Friday evening and continuing all day Saturday. In North Carolina and Tennessee, the academy meets at the bar center. In Arkansas, the first session for the first-ever academy was held in Little Rock, and the second session, in January 2020, will be in Fayetteville.

The curricula for the three public service academies are somewhat similar; the topics that are addressed include:

  • a review of the Constitution and the framework it establishes for elections and public officials;
  • presentations by notable figures within the state who have run for office and won (Hensley notes that these speakers also share frank insights into the costs of a campaign and of holding office, in terms of family and personal life);
  • information on how to continue practicing law while campaigning for office;
  • fundamentals of fundraising and budgeting;
  • media training, to help attendees consider how to frame the issues they care about, and how to respond to questions they may face;
  • training in which tactics may be most successful in which situations, in terms of getting out the vote and asking for support;
  • intensive work in developing a “stump speech;” and
  • do’s and don’ts of campaigning.

The Arkansas bar’s partner in its academy is the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, which Rosenthal says is the only school in the country offering a master’s program in public service. (Both Benson and Looney are graduates of this program, as well as law school graduates.) The state’s two law schools―in Little Rock and Fayetteville, both within the University of Arkansas system―are also very focused on public service, Rosenthal notes. Both are also sponsors of the Public Service Academy, and a total of 12 law students are in the inaugural class (with their registration fee waived).

The NCBA partners with The Institute for the Public Trust, a nonprofit whose sole mission is to find and train promising new leaders to run for office in North Carolina and at the federal level. Hensley notes that the director of the nonpartisan organization is a former chief of staff for two members of Congress, including Elizabeth Dole.

For now, the Tennessee bar’s academy is exclusively a TBA program. Schwarz says there’s been some discussion of seeking a partner organization or sponsors, but the bar would want to be very careful about choosing those partners or sponsors, so as not to compromise the nonpartisan nature of the academy.

Expect partisan views

Interestingly, Hensley says that while his bar’s public service academy is similarly committed to nonpartisanship, this doesn’t mean that the speakers who serve on the faculty are expected to withhold their own political views. The academy keeps a delicate balance, he says, by including speakers who represent a variety of political viewpoints, and by stressing to them that they are at the academy to share strategies rather than to espouse their own beliefs, per se. Still, because the speakers are sharing insights from their own campaigns or ones in which they've been directly involved, attendees can expect to encounter some opinions that may differ from their own.

“You're going to hear viewpoints come through,” Hensley says. “That is part of it, and if this is someone who is in a different part of the political spectrum, it's also important for you to hear that voice, too.”

Even if you lose, you win

Because these academies are still so new, all three bars are thinking more in terms of laying a foundation rather than expecting that they will immediately result in a large number of lawyers successfully entering public service. Even with all the lessons conveyed by these academies, the realities of politics might still dole out their own harsh lessons—and that’s when the attendees might need to call on what they’ve learned about resilience and trying again.

“You have to figure out what works for you as a candidate,” Hensley says. “It may take one experience to help you understand what this all means for you and how you communicate who you are.”

With the long game in mind, the TBA is now considering setting up an alumni program, Schwarz says, so that those who have been through the public service academy can continue to share insights and support. This would be in keeping with what Schwarz calls "one of the best things we did" during the most recent academy session: An alumni panel of two previous attendees who went on to run for office—and both won—retraced their path to success and shared their advice. 

Looney has his own hard-won knowledge to share: In 2016, he ran unsuccessfully for state representative against an incumbent in Northeast Arkansas. “My greatest contribution to this program is highlighting for the class what not to do when running for office,” he says.