Embracing Civic Engagement 101

M. Cabell Clay
Being civically engaged takes doing. One little task contributes. Many small tasks combine into something greater.

Being civically engaged takes doing. One little task contributes. Many small tasks combine into something greater.

Burlingham via Shutterstock

Being a citizen lawyer is rarely about being a transcendent political leader who saves the galaxy. It is about the countless ways, most of them small and mundane, in which any lawyer can make a difference for the better.

W. Taylor Reveley III

Many are drawn to the legal profession by a desire to help people and better society. For some lawyers, civic engagement is a full-time calling answered by a public sector or nonprofit job. For others, civic engagement must fit into a new practice, which can seem daunting. Given the many demands on their time and energy, how do new attorneys find time to be civically engaged?

W. Taylor Reveley III, former president of the College of William & Mary and advocate for attorney civic engagement, wrote of the “citizen lawyer”:

 Being a citizen lawyer is not about being perfect; it is about getting started and doing the best we can amid all the other demands on our time and energy. Being a citizen lawyer is rarely about being a transcendent political leader who saves the galaxy. It is about the countless ways, most of them small and mundane, in which any lawyer can make a difference for the better, drawing on the comparative advantages for leadership inherent in legal training and experience. Most days, being a citizen lawyer is not hard, it just takes doing.

The Citizen Lawyer, 50 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1309 (2009).

Simply put, being civically engaged as a young attorney takes doing. One little task contributes. Many small tasks combine into something greater. 

Here are five tips for incorporating civic engagement into your practice:

Start small.

Civic engagement does not have to mean running for political office or taking on an extensive pro bono case. Civic engagement can be volunteering one hour a week at a homeless shelter or spending one Saturday morning a month registering people to vote. Small actions can have an impact on your community and are a great way to start making civic engagement part of your practice.

Follow your passion.

Seek causes you are excited to support, whether it is assisting domestic violence victims secure protective orders or volunteering at an animal rescue. By consciously choosing civic engagement activities that you believe in, you will find the tasks more satisfying and, ultimately, do a better job.

Develop skills.

Civic engagement is the perfect opportunity to build skills that you may not otherwise have the opportunity to develop early in your career. Need practice comfortably talking to strangers? Canvas for a candidate. Want to develop better organizational skills? Head a bar association committee or assist a nonprofit with event logistics.

Cultivate relationships.

While you may not be expected to bring in clients now, a senior associate does not wake up in her sixth year of practice and suddenly “have clients.” Client development requires building relationships over time. Civic engagement opportunities allow you to start that process.

Build your brand.

If you pursue civic opportunities, you will inevitably build a reputation in your community. Be thoughtful about how you present yourself. Ensure the reputation that you build complements your practice. Are you seen as someone who is dependable and gets results? Or are you are perceived as difficult to work with or unlikely to follow through? Use your civic engagement to improve your community and demonstrate your abilities.

Thoughtfully consider which civic engagement opportunities excite you, fit your schedule, and promote your skills, relationship, and brand development. Let the opportunities that fit your practice become a vital component of your success. It just takes doing.

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M. Cabell Clay

M. Cabell Clay is a partner at Moore & Van Allen PLLC in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she practices a mix of commercial and employment litigation.