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Using Litigation Skills in the Public Policy Arena

Janice Arellano

Using Litigation Skills in the Public Policy Arena
John Baggaley via Getty Images

When most of us enter law school, we have the expectation to go into litigation in some form since the majority of 1L year is devoted to studying caselaw coupled with criminal and civil procedure. A growing number of law students have an interest in transactional law and dream of poring over documents related to mergers and acquisitions. However, a large number of students have an interest in policymaking and crafting legislation. Few law students actually get into public policy work because that is not typically an area of practice.

This practice point is geared for the pre-law student or law student who may have an interest in legislative work, which is completely different from the traditional practice of law. Perhaps House of Cards or The West Wing inspires a law student or attorney to make policy and/or get involved in advocating for certain causes that impact the executive branch. Law students and new attorneys need to understand that the practice of law and policymaking are completely different areas but require the development of similar skill sets of quality writing, advocacy and networking. Additionally, there are ways to get involved through litigation and submitting amicus briefs. In an Institute for Legal Reform study, it is believed that “the doors to the White House and federal agencies are eagerly held open for those representing America’s lawsuit industry.” Most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union chapters have used their organizational prowess to resist the administration’s immigration policies.

1. Select an Issue or Two to Focus on
Similar to the practice of law, it is no longer wise to be a “generalist.” Many law firms and in-house general counsel seek attorneys who have learned to specialize. In the policy world, think tanks, Capitol Hill, local government and lobbying firms generally shape you to become an expert in one or two issues. Decide what issues you want to focus on for example, are you passionate about the environment or education?

2. Seek Opportunities to Become a Fellow
Law schools nationwide offer programs for graduates and new attorneys to become a fellow in their policy programs. A sampling of those fellowships are the following: New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity, Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Academic Fellowship, Temple University’s Dual J.D./M.P.H. program is geared for students interested in Health Policy and University of Florida-Levin’s Yegelwel Fellowship.

3. Find an Attorney Willing to Serve as a Mentor
Reach out to an attorney who has practice experience and transitioned into a career in policymaking. Find out about that attorney through your law school’s career office and/or local bar association. If the attorney is willing to serve as a mentor, even to answer a few questions over the phone or coffee regarding their career will be invaluable.

4. Join a Local or State Committee or Board 
Getting involved in a local committee or board will be valuable not only to your community but to you as a new attorney. This is an opportunity to grow your network for potential future business or meeting like-minded attorneys.