February 18, 2020 Feature

Considering a Run for Public Office? What Every Lawyer-Candidate Should Know

Monte E. Frank

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Can running for
office actually bolster your practice?

Can running for office actually bolster your practice?

IMAGE_SOURCE_/CULTURA VIA GETTY IMAGES

Campaigning will take time and resources that could be spent developing your business. Can running for office actually bolster your practice? This article, based on my experience running for lieutenant governor of Connecticut, will look at what you should consider before you decide to run, and how you can balance the demands of running for public office with the demands of running a practice. It will explore the benefits of entering the arena and whether the time, energy, and resources are worth it. Whether you are thinking about running for statewide office or for a local position, I hope to convince you that if you take the right precautions and plan appropriately, running for office will provide you only with an upside whether you win the election or not.

How I Entered the Race

On a crisp morning in October 2017, I received a call while in the car on the way to the office—a call that changed my life. It was from a friend who was working with a team putting together a potential gubernatorial run for Oz Griebel, a highly respected businessman, public servant, and community leader. Oz was the chief executive officer of the MetroHartford Alliance, led boards of prominent business and nonprofit organizations, and had chaired the state’s Transportation Strategy Board. He was well known as a person of substance and integrity and would be a great governor. My friend said: “Good morning. This call is coming out of the blue, I’m sure. Oz is going to run for governor and you’re on our short list to be his running mate.” Say what? Are you serious? We then talked for a while about Oz’s vision for Connecticut and how I could help him win and return our great state to preeminence. While I was completely stunned by the call and the prospect of running for lieutenant governor with Oz—a man who could really impact people’s lives for the better—the practical considerations of practicing law while running for statewide office quickly flooded my mind.

Fortunately, I work for a firm that is committed to public service, the communities we live and work in, and the well-being of our state. I made my way into the office and went to see my managing partner. I was not at all surprised that he was receptive to a discussion about my entering the race for lieutenant governor with Oz. We talked about the time required for running a statewide campaign and how I would balance the demand of the campaign with the practice of law and other commitments. Of course, we discussed the pros and cons for the firm and me, and whether it was worth the significant investment in time and energy. There was no question that the campaign would take me out of the office and reduce my billable hours. But I also realized that there were many short- and long-term benefits, including increasing name recognition and developing significant contacts across the state. After some deliberation, which included consultation with other partners in the firm, we concluded that entering the race, if Oz asked me, presented a win-win proposition. After a few days, I informed my friend on Oz’s team that I was interested in talking further about a possible run with Oz.

The next step was to meet with Oz and his team. We held an introductory meeting followed by many long meetings, which included discussions about policy, of course, but also to make sure we were a good match both politically and personally. Oz presented our run as a real partnership, which was critical to me. I talked to Oz about Joe Biden’s book, in which he described his courtship with then candidate Barack Obama. During those discussions, Biden essentially said that he knew Obama would be the president and make the final decisions, but Biden wanted to be the last person in the room. It was clear to me that Oz shared that same philosophy, which was key. If I was going to do this, I wanted to make sure that we were a team and that my role was clearly defined and valued. After a month or so of meetings, which included a vetting process, Oz asked me to be his running mate, and I accepted. We were off and running.

The Importance of Public Service

I firmly believe that some form of public service is an obligation that all Americans should embrace, but even more so for lawyers. I previously served as president of the Connecticut Bar Association and the New England Bar Association. I currently serve on the Executive Council of the National Conference of Bar Presidents and co-chair its Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I still serve as a delegate from Connecticut to the American Bar Association House of Delegates. I also work with the ABA Standing Committee on Gun Violence and chair its policy subcommittee. Through these experiences, I have seen lawyers at their finest, both leading on important issues and working quietly behind the scenes on pro bono matters. Lawyers have the unique ability to positively impact lives. Running for public office is just another way to harness all our legal training to fulfill the mission to help the public at large.

What to Expect

Before jumping into a race, you should know what to expect. If you are thinking about running, you must be prepared to be thrust into the spotlight. When you enter the race, you give up your privacy. You have to be “on” at all times, as eyes will be on you. This includes trips to the supermarket or getting a haircut, which you get often, whether you need one or not. Yes, barbershops are still a central hub for retail politics.

You need to go into the race with the expectation that the public will learn everything about you. You immediately become an open book. This means that before you enter the race, you should go through a vetting process, which forces you to think about your entire life and answer the vetting team’s questions honestly. This is critical. If there is anything out there that would embarrass you and the campaign, then stay out of the race. Don’t expose yourself and your family to public scrutiny if there are skeletons in your closet. If you enter the race with the expectation that anything negative in your past might come out, and you can live with the public knowing every detail about those things, then go for it. If you are hesitant after doing the deep dive, then bow out. You owe that to yourself, your family, your running mate, your donors, your volunteers, all the people who are investing in you, and your law partners. Moreover, as a lawyer, you want to make the run a win even if you lose the election. That win-win proposition evaporates if you become the subject of a scandal. Be prudent.

Before you even think about running, be sure you have a tough skin. You will be attacked by the official media and many on social media. As you learned practicing law, staying on message and avoiding unnecessary entanglement will serve you well. Be disciplined.

Preparing for Your Run

If you run, there are so many skills that will be developed and you will perfect. You come out of the race with the ability to speak on many subjects at almost any time. However, that only occurs if you have done your homework. During the early stages of the campaign, I spent a lot of time reading reports, meeting with experts, and developing policy. That study period was invaluable as the campaign heated up. While stump speeches became routine, questions from the media and from residents at meet and greets could be about anything. You need to be prepared.

If you take the time to drill into policy, you can make a big difference in the quality of public discourse and help drive positive change whether you win the election or not. I would encourage all potential candidates to develop well-thought-out policies on important issues and use them to promote your campaign, rather than to attack your opponents. You can use your time as a candidate to bring people together in a collaborative effort to solve problems. That approach will not only help improve the current toxic political climate, but it will benefit you after the campaign, win or lose.

Early on, I realized that with the right attitude, campaigning could be fun, informative, and engaging. I remember attending during the winter a Special Olympics’ benefit called the Polar Bear Plunge. It was 30 degrees and I was on a beach in New London in a bathing suit waiting to dive into the Long Island Sound’s frigid waters. While shivering on the beach and waiting to jump in the water with my teammates from a local car dealership who were much better prepared than me after tailgating beforehand, I hear over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome the next lieutenant governor of the state of Connecticut,” and a microphone was immediately thrust into my face. I said: “Thank you. I promise you one thing. I promise I will make better decisions as your lieutenant governor than I am about to make,” pointing to the water. And then we ran into the incredibly cold water. Forty-five minutes later, I was sitting in the living room of a potential donor, explaining why he should support us. An hour after that, I was walking the North End of Hartford with friends I had met while working to reduce gun violence. That night, I attended a meet and greet in a suburban community. I got home late and exhausted, but completely exhilarated by the day and ready to do it again in the morning.

Campaigning While Practicing Law

Running for office is a huge time commitment, especially in the period from Labor Day to Election Day. In the pre–Labor Day period, I generally was out campaigning most nights and every weekend. I attended one or two campaign events during the day. I tried to schedule them in the early morning or late afternoon, leaving the bulk of the day available for my law practice. If I had a trial, I just blocked off that time and took a break from the election effort. Depositions were easily scheduled. With proper planning, the pre–Labor Day period is very manageable.

The post–Labor Day period is when things really heat up. While the balance of my time was skewed in favor of the law practice before Labor Day, the exact opposite occurred in the post–Labor Day run up to Election Day. During that seven- to eight-week period, my time in the office was limited to two or three hours per day. Again, you should expect that and plan accordingly. It is critical that your partners and staff are ready, willing, and able to support you. Without that backup, running for office while maintaining a law practice is impossible.

Finally, make sure you have your technology set up. A good working laptop with a secure hot spot is necessary. I spent a lot of time on my laptop between campaign events responding to clients and communicating with the office.

Running Is a Win-Win (Even If You Lose)

Although we did not win the election, I have no regrets about running. Running for statewide public office is a privilege. You are provided with incredible access to everything, from the C-suite of large corporations to the kitchens in the poorest neighborhoods to behind-the-scene tours of hospitals, universities, and even casinos. People open up and share with you their lives in ways that I would not have otherwise experienced. Businesses and nonprofits will welcome you in with open arms to show what they do.

Oz and I ran an open and honest campaign based on the issues that matter to Connecticut residents. We refused to engage in negative campaigning, even when we were attacked by our opponents. We never went into the political gutter. Running was an experience of a lifetime, and I am proud of what we accomplished. In addition to feeling good about my run, the campaign also provided benefits to me as a lawyer.

As a direct result of the campaign, I became a better advocate. My public speaking improved significantly. As a candidate, you learn how to effectively deliver a message. In essence, during the campaign, you face the jury every single day, whether on a street corner in a city, while engaged in a televised debate, or responding to questions in someone’s kitchen. At our meet and greets, Oz and I would stand up and answer questions, which in most cases was a conversation, almost every night. You learn very quickly how to convey a message in a non-confrontational way and win people over. You learn how to build consensus around a proposal. Those are skills that I honed during the campaign that I will carry with me as a lawyer, and, if I decide to run again, in a future campaign.

I have already seen the benefits to my law practice. Importantly, I did not lose a single client while on the campaign trail, and many called and e-mailed me to tell me that they were proud to have me as their lawyer. I have brought in new clients—individuals and businesses—based entirely on people I met while on the campaign trail. I also have developed a new referral base. I have received referrals from people I never would have met but for the campaign. I have expanded my referral network outside of Connecticut as well. During the campaign I engaged with outside donors and other groups that were interested in our campaign. I remain in contact with many of these people and continue to work on an important political initiative with some of them. In addition, I have been asked to be on prominent nonprofit boards. I continue to speak and write about issues that matter to the people of Connecticut, all of which has a peripheral benefit to my practice. While I had hoped to win the election, the campaign proved to be the win-win proposition that I had thought it would be, and so much more.

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Monte E. Frank is vice chair of litigation at Pullman & Comley LLC in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He represents business and municipal clients in the state and federal courts in Connecticut and before administrative agencies on a wide range of matters. He regularly represents clients in mediation and arbitration in Connecticut and other states. In 2018 he ran for lieutenant governor of Connecticut.

Published in GPSolo, Volume 37, Number 1, January/February 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.