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June 12, 2015 Articles

The Benefits of Service in the Public SectorNew

By Barbara A. Knapic

I’m kidding, right? I want you to add public service to your already overextended schedule? Yes, I do. I want you to contact your local government—city, county, state—or political party of your choice and let them know you are willing to sit on a commission or a board or to run for office. Believe me, the benefits are immense, both to the public entity and to you.

Although there are now more women attending and graduating from college than men, we are still sorely underrepresented in the public sector. Why does that matter? Because if we are on boards and commissions and in office, we are in an ideal position to advocate for more women to be selected for those posts. We are in a position to advance issues that interest and concern us. And a diversity of opinion and viewpoints adds dimension to the conversation and, ultimately, a better outcome.

I’ve held one position or another in government since 1990; only five and a half of those years were in a full-time capacity. I was the first or the only woman in many of these positions. I’m currently serving my second term of office as the only woman member of the Wooster, Ohio, city council. I was the first woman chair of the Ohio Industrial Commission, appointed by the governor. I was the first woman chair of the Wayne County (Ohio) Metropolitan Housing Authority and sat as the only woman on the Rittman, Ohio, city council for two terms. I can’t tell you how many women, young and old, have expressed their gratitude that “at least we have one woman.” In 2015, we are grateful for “one woman”? We should expect more of ourselves. We should expect more of our public entities.

Women attorneys are well suited for public service. First, because we have an advanced degree, we earn more respect from the powers that be. It’s sad but true. I admire those women who have gone from home to public service or, more likely, done both concurrently. But they are sometimes not given the respect they deserve. Second, we as attorneys have analytical skills necessary to navigate legislation and policy issues. Third, we are usually skilled mediators and negotiators. Fourth, we tend to be very tenacious.

The contacts you make through your community service also afford the opportunity to reach more people in your private practice, because you have the opportunity to put your skills in front of the public and potential clients on a regular basis. This exposure is a secondary gain and not your primary purpose for serving. Men have understood for years that board service and public positions advance a lawyer’s market position, but that does not mean you are compromising your integrity or the public service you are providing.

Because of the variety of issues that come before you, there is the opportunity to be educated in topics that may prove useful in your practice. There is no such thing as too much education or information, and you never know when it may come in handy. Keep an open mind.

Because you are in a public role, you have the opportunity to become a role model for other women and to be a potential mentor. And there is the opportunity to advocate for issues that may not be in the forefront for our male colleagues. I hesitate to say “women’s issues,” because I think it does a grave disservice to pigeonhole any issue. But we as women do approach some things from a different perspective. It is satisfying to be that “other voice” and round out the discussion on issues. Because you are discussing these topics in public, you are also educating others.

Many of us went into the law to “make a difference.” Well, jump into the public sector and it is certain that you will.

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, public service, public sector, local government, mentoring, government service

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