Civic Engagement Is More Than Running for Office

Frank Broomell, Julie Butner, King Downing, and Alicia Scahill
Consider the public sector after law school. It is an excellent way to make connections, hone your skills, build your resume, and do good.

Consider the public sector after law school. It is an excellent way to make connections, hone your skills, build your resume, and do good.

SeventyFour via iStock

If looking straight into the camera and saying, “I approved this message” makes you want to run out of the room, do not worry. Here are a few ways you can make a difference in politics without being a politician.

Volunteer with a Campaign or Get Out the Vote (GOTV) Organization

While campaigns need money to get onto the airwaves, they can live or die based on volunteers. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed by winning the Democratic primary for the New York Fourteenth Congressional District in June 2018, a dedicated group of volunteers can help a candidate bring her message to doorsteps across a district.

It is OK if you have never volunteered for a campaign. I was unsure how things would go when I knocked on my first door, but you soon get the hang of it. It’s also OK if you are not a policy expert. Complicated or tricky questions can be referred to campaign staff or the candidate’s website. Canvassing is a great way to spend a fall afternoon outdoors. There are opportunities for those who cannot walk door-to-door as many campaigns hold phone-banking events to remind people to get out to vote and ensure they have a voting plan for Election Day.

The first step is going to a campaign’s website and signing up to volunteer. Many local parties also have a Young Democrats or Young Republicans chapter and will help coordinate volunteer opportunities.

For those who prefer a nonpartisan approach but want to help protect the right to vote, organizations committed to election protection always look for Election Day volunteers. In 2016, I volunteered with the Lawyer’s Collective for Civil Rights. They trained volunteer law students and paired us with attorneys to assist voters around the country. We helped voters understand their rights and reported problems or issues by maintaining contact with a central hotline. Rock the Vote is another organization where you can help encourage your community and Get Out the Vote.

Work in a Legislative Office

I went to law school thinking my eventual career path would be policy- or legislation-oriented. I was always interested in politics and had varied interests, so it seemed the best way to effect the most change. At Northeastern School of Law, I completed two co-ops in the Massachusetts State House, the first for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance (EOANF) and the second for a state senator. The first co-op led to my first job out of school as the assistant deputy counsel for EOANF. The connections I made through EOANF led to my next two positions in the legislature.

I was excited to work at EOANF, even knowing it would only last eight months until the next election. While there, I was surrounded by extremely smart, dedicated public servants. I was proud to be one of them. It felt like The West Wing in real life. It solidified my belief that, in the hands of the right people, the government is a tool to improve lives.

After EOANF, I worked as staff counsel in the state Senate and learned how to navigate the opaque legislative process as I researched, edited, and drafted bills, and met advocates regarding a range of local and statewide issues. I liked thinking about solar energy one minute and affordable housing or charter school funding the next. However, I was occasionally frustrated that the work felt a mile wide and an inch thick. Luckily, I heard about a counsel position in the Committee on Revenue staff and soon moved from senate staffer to house committee staffer to focus on tax policy.

This may surprise you, but tax policy is fascinating. Tax credits and deductions are frequently used to incentivize corporate and individual behavior. Property taxes and local property tax abatements have ripple effects on housing and zoning policy. Excise taxes on cigarettes reduce smoking. The earned income tax credit is one of the best tools we have against poverty and income inequality. Through the Revenue Committee, I have touched on many issues through the singular lens of taxes, allowing me to get in the weeds without limiting my generalist tendencies.

Constitutional law, property law, corporations, and contracts have been the most relevant law school classes to my work but it often surprises me what legal issues might arise when discussing a bill’s merits with colleagues. I’ve worked for the state executive branch, the Senate, and the House. At each turn, I have found the work exciting and interesting, with the added bonus of feeling like I might be making a small difference in my community. I highly recommend that new lawyers consider the public sector after law school. It is an excellent way to make connections, hone your skills, build your resume, and do good.

Serve as a Legal Observer

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .” The opening line from A Tale of Two Cities, the novel on the years leading to the French Revolution, is as true today as then. Today’s government is pushing to roll back civil and human rights gains. There is no need for law students or young lawyers to feel depressed about this. A movement has sprung to stop that rollback and put society back on the track of justice and improving people’s lives. History shows that each time people’s rights were threatened, protests filled the streets and courts. They not only won back the rights they were losing but also won new rights.

Lawyers and law students played key roles in each movement, not only in court, but also as legal advisers and movement members. That's where the National Lawyers Guild (NLG or Guild) fits in. NLG is one of the country’s oldest progressive bar associations. Since 1937, NLG has used the law to advance social justice and support social movements. Since 1968, the Guild’s Mass Defense Committee has supported protesters by:

  • holding “know your rights” trainings and workshops;
  • advising organizers about protest actions and legal consequences;
  • serving as legal observers at protests and other actions;
  • creating and running jail and bail support programs;
  • providing legal representation for protest arrestees.

A legal observer is present at a protest or free speech action but is not a protester. They wear NLG green hats and armbands to mark their role as legal observers. Legal observers support the activist’s safe exercise of rights of speech and protest, and their presence may deter police misconduct. They are responsible for documenting any dangerous or illegal activity that occurs, such as unlawful arrest, use of force, and denial of access to public spaces like parks and sidewalks. Legal observers also assist in connecting people who are arrested with the larger mass defense efforts (e.g., jail support).

Being part of the NLG can be very rewarding and beneficial to lawyers and law students. Witnessing a movement provides balance to the academic side of law school or a day job sitting behind a desk. Legal observer volunteers describe the satisfaction of “doing something” greater than yourself. Legal observation is a way to support movements without directly being part of the movement and risking arrest. Additionally, joining NLG helps build contacts, connections, and “second chair” opportunities for those interested in public interest law.

There are ample civic engagement opportunities to fit your time and interests. Go find them!


Frank Broomell

Frank Broomell is a 3L at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He worked as a legislative assistant in the US House of Representatives and ran in the 2014 Democratic primary for the First Congressional District of New Jersey. 

Julie Butner

Julie Butner is an assistant solicitor with the Special Victims Unit in the Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor’s Office in Beaufort, South Carolina.

King Downing

King Downing is National Lawyers Guild director of mass defense and founder of the Human Rights-Racial Justice Center. 

Alicia Scahill

Alicia Scahill is chief counsel for the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Revenue.