We are in the middle of a wave that is overtaking American politics—a wave of young people who have set out to be the change they seek. The following collection of experiences and insights is from nine young lawyers who have answered the call to public service.
Jennifer Carroll Foy was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017. A graduate of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, she serves as a public defender in Arlington County, Virginia, when the House is not in session.
Jay Jones was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017. A graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, he is also a partner at Bischoff Martingayle P.C.
Spencer Merriweather III has served as the Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, district attorney since 2017. He is a career prosecutor who attended the University of North Carolina School of Law.
Marvin Pendarvis has been a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives since 2017. A graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law, he is also an associate with the Peper Law Firm, PA.
Dylan Roberts has served in the Colorado House of Representatives since 2017. He is a University of Colorado Law School graduate and serves as the deputy district attorney for Eagle County, Colorado.
Adam Roversi serves as the deputy county attorney for the County of Kauai, Hawaii, and is a candidate for the Kauai County Council. He attended the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law.
Spencer Thibodeau has served on the Portland, Maine, City Council since 2015, and is currently seeking reelection. He is an associate with Verrill Dana
Michelle Wu has served on the Boston City Council since 2013. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she served as the city council’s president from 2016 to 2018.
Caylin Young ran for the Maryland House of Representatives in 2018. He is a University of Baltimore School of Law graduate and currently serves as public policy counsel at the ACLU of Maryland.
When did you decide to run for office? Was it a long-standing aspiration, or did it develop during (or after) law school?
Jones: Although I grew up around politics (I hold the same seat my father once held), I had no designs on holding office. I was enjoying life as a labor and employment associate with a large firm when the incumbent announced she would not seek reelection. I was only 27 at the time, but my community urged me to pursue the nomination.
Pendarvis: In 2015, after Charleston suffered two great tragedies in the Walter Scott and Emanuel Nine shootings, I became involved in grassroots efforts. I announced I was going to run at an activist meeting to plan for city council elections. I did not put much thought into that decision beforehand but knew that I had a larger obligation to my community. I ultimately lost that election, but I was 25 and lost to a 20-year incumbent. That race taught me a lot and put me in the position to become more involved. I eventually ran again and won with 80 percent of the vote.
Thibodeau: I made the decision to run for office in the middle of a blizzard. I was walking to work in the middle of the street because the sidewalks were not plowed, and I decided to do something about it. I didn’t know who my city councilor was, but I felt like my city wasn’t doing very basic things that we rightfully expect. Things came full circle when I pushed through amendments to Portland’s snow clearing ordinance at the end of my first term.
Wu: As the daughter of immigrant parents, I never expected to be involved in politics. Life took an unexpected turn when my mother’s sudden onset of mental illness left me raising my two younger sisters and running a family business. I quickly realized the impact of government on people’s daily lives and applied for law school to understand the legal frameworks that shape opportunities and barriers for families. My 1L contracts law professor—Elizabeth Warren—announced she was running for US Senate, and I became her constituency director. One year later, I was elected to the city council.
How has your legal training and experience prepared you for your elected role?
Merriweather: There’s no question that my years as a trial prosecutor have served me well in my elected role. As someone now responsible for setting policy, every consideration in my work is tethered to my experience standing before a judge and jury, empathizing with individual victims and survivors, and explaining the limits and possibilities of the law to families and communities.
Roversi: I have served as deputy county attorney for the County of Kauai for more than four years. I have handled civil litigation on behalf of the county and advised various county departments, boards, and commissions. I am intimately acquainted with how our county government operates and sometimes fails to operate. I think my background has been the perfect preparation to serve on the county council and get things done.
Wu: I see my legal training as the foundation for bold and effective advocacy. From dissecting contracts and legislation to serving clients with integrity and ethics, my legal skill set has made me a stronger lawmaker and a more vigorous advocate.
Young: My legal training helps me better frame my platform and advocate clearly and succinctly. It also helped with my public-speaking skills.
On some issues, you need to vote your conscience. If your conscience does not have a strong preference, then vote your district. But always be ready to explain your vote.
How do you connect with constituents with whom you may have a deep disagreement on policy issues?
Merriweather: I have a responsibility to hear from people, even if they may disagree with me. As a lawyer, I’m always better served by asking questions than by answering them. If I engage with those whom I disagree, I may be able to fashion a policy that ameliorates some of their concerns and extends the life of the policy. I think that is both good politics and good manners.
Pendarvis: My approach is reflected by a quote from former President Obama: “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.” We must start with what unites us. We often want the same things but have different ways of getting there.
Roberts: On my first day, a senior representative told me: “On some issues, you need to vote your conscience. If your conscience does not have a strong preference, then vote your district. But always be ready to explain your vote.” I make it a priority to have an explanation ready for my constituents on every major vote I take.
During your tenure, what has been your proudest or most successful moment?
Foy: The moment I was sworn in. I was standing on the floor of the general assembly while holding my twins. I know that one day they will understand what I did, and that I did it to build a better future for them. It was the culmination of everything: the thousands of doors knocked on, the hundreds of phone calls, and doing it all with swollen ankles, sleepless nights, and morning sickness. I was able to share the moment with family, friends, and volunteers who believed in our shared values and goal.
Jones: When my legislation created the Critically Missing Adult Alert Program. The bill was introduced in honor of an 18-year-old girl abducted in Virginia Beach. She was missing for several days before law enforcement became involved, despite strong suspicion she had been abducted. Tragically, she was found murdered two weeks later. The legislation I introduced created an “Amber Alert” for Virginians between the ages of 18 and 60. Previously, no framework existed.
Roberts: A mother brought a concern to me about her nine-year-old son with epilepsy. They had managed to control his seizures with non-THC cannabis oil, but it required three doses a day, with one at lunchtime. Colorado law prohibited school staff from administering that dose because it constituted medical marijuana, and it was not possible for his parents to make it to school every day. My bill allowed school staff to administer his medicine just like any other. This was state government at its best: making people’s lives better.
Thibodeau: I carried out my goal of creating the first fully separated bike infrastructure in Portland, Maine. This program will allow Portland to make huge infrastructure investments in the near future.
What has surprised you most in your journey to office?
Jones: I was surprised by voters' appetites for young leadership. I initially thought that being 27 years old would deter voters from placing their trust in me. However, my age was an asset and was constantly identified as a reason that voters supported me throughout the campaign.
Pendarvis: I was pleasantly surprised by how collegial and helpful everyone is. As a young member in years and age, people have gone out of their way to make me comfortable.
Roberts: The good: almost every legislator is truly genuine about serving the public, no matter their party. A lot of good legislation is bipartisan, but nobody hears about that as much as the partisan squabbles. The bad: campaigning, even for local office, is a lot about fundraising. You cannot get your message to voters without adequate funds. The amount of time a candidate has to dedicate to fundraising is much more significant than I had imagined.
What would you have done differently in your journey to office?
Merriweather: As a career prosecutor before taking office, it was important to me to stay away from politics to avoid any perceptions of bias. I still think that was the right idea. Yet, I may have paid more attention to the political structures around me. The learning curve for a first-time candidate is steep. Paying closer attention to the ins and outs of electioneering and campaigning may have lightened my load a bit.
Roversi: I would have filed for office sooner and would have begun preparing much earlier. The amount of work required to mount an effective campaign (including fundraising) is daunting, and I did not have an appreciation for what I was in for before I jumped in.
Thibodeau: Nothing. And, I would advise anyone thinking about running for office to do it. There is never a perfect or ideal time, and serving requires a lot of effort to be successful. However, to be a part of building my community is an experience that I would never change.
There's a balance between listening to constituents and articulating your platform positions. You must master doing both to win the vote while moving policy forward.
Many who run for office have a history of civic engagement. How else have you worked in your community, and what has your favorite experience been?
Foy: When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided to become a foster mother. I was raised by my grandmother and knew that it was important to give back to children. I eventually decided to create a nonprofit—the Foundation for Foster and Orphan Children—with the mission to improve the lives of foster and orphan children.
Roversi: Coaching outrigger canoe paddling at Hanalei Canoe Club. As a bonus, it keeps me in shape!
Young: I've served in the offices of two state legislators, as liaison for the state's attorney, as a fellow for a US senator, and as a student leader in the National Black Law Students Association. My favorite experience was my first internship because I learned so much, realized how attainable it was, and recognized that I too could serve.
What is some practical advice you can give to young lawyers contemplating a foray into politics?
Foy: The best advice that I received when I was contemplating running for office was to put my head down and run. Don’t listen to the noise and don’t listen to the naysayers because they will always be there. You have to keep your eye on the ball, know you’re in it for the right reasons, and stay true to yourself.
Merriweather: I’m not sure how well I would have done in my first campaign—or in elected office—if I hadn’t put myself in a line of work that taught me how to relate authentically to all types of people. My best advice is to engage with as many people as you can in ways that are personal and real.
Roberts: If you see an area where you think changing public policy would help someone, find an organization that champions that cause. Go to their meetings, sign up to volunteer, or go to your state capitol to lobby legislators on that issue.
Wu: Focus not on the position, but the difference you’d like to make. It can be daunting to think about going through such a public job interview as a political campaign, but the reality is that the most effective candidates channel their constituents’ struggles and hopes.
Young: There's a balance between listening to constituents and articulating your platform positions. You must master doing both to win the vote while moving policy forward.