Starting a Bright Legal Career with Local Public Service

Christopher J. Tyson
Involvement in public service provides an opportunity to learn how to apply your legal skills within a diverse professional skills environment.

Involvement in public service provides an opportunity to learn how to apply your legal skills within a diverse professional skills environment.

Palidachan via Shutterstock

Beginning a legal career can be intimidating. While much has been written about the role of localities and states in our federalism, too many law students graduate without meaningful exposure to the design and function of local and state government. Thus, when seeking employment or opportunities to use their legal skills outside of work, graduates and young attorneys may lack an awareness of the various local government entities and civic organizations that play a considerable role in cities’ and metropolitan areas’ governance and cultural dynamics. Consequently, they may miss or underestimate opportunities for both public service and employment that exist in the boards and commissions that govern local and state government agencies and quasi-public institutions. Local-level public service opportunities can offer young attorneys personal and professional development, networking, and career direction.

An Optimal Time to Commit to Public Service

Post-graduation is an optimal time to take opportunities for public service seriously. Most law students graduate in their mid-to-late twenties before they have started families. Graduating from law school typically marks the end of formal education for most young lawyers, and their attention may, for the first time, turn to rooting themselves in a community through public service and civic engagement.

Joining a local or state government board or commission is one way to take root. In every community, there are public agencies that control local institutions, such as parks and recreation, public libraries, urban redevelopment, public transportation, the arts, and public housing. There are also private nonprofits that provide significant philanthropic support for issues like homelessness, urban beautification, nature conservation, and youth mentoring. Allocations of local, state, or federal government monies; philanthropic support; or revenue raised through fees and charges often support these entities.

These entities provide vitally important and often high-profile services related to local quality of life. Therefore, they often are highly scrutinized within local political culture, especially when the community’s demand for a service exceeds the entity’s capacity to deliver, or when the entity is perceived to have a disproportionate allocation of political power relative to its mandate. The public board or commission that governs the entity’s activities resolves such matters.

Overlooked Personal and Professional Development Opportunities

Service on public boards and commissions offers an array of underappreciated opportunities to experience personal and professional development. Young attorneys can also gain experience in the local political process through their public board service. Public boards and commissions meet in public regularly (usually monthly), are governed by state public meetings and records laws, and rely on paid employees and sometimes volunteers to assist with governance, service delivery, and fundraising. They also draw a wide range of professional disciplines that can expand a young attorney’s professional network and understanding of nonlegal disciplines in public institutions. Engineers, architects, accountants, social workers, and others have skill sets important to the delivery of these services. Involvement in public service, therefore, gives young attorneys an opportunity to learn how to apply their legal skills within a diverse professional skills environment.

A board or commission can operate as training grounds for future political and community leaders. Service opportunities for a public board or commission typically involve an appointment by an elected official or an elected body. Reaching out to potential contacts in any given public agency may be helpful. While relationships with political actors can provide entrée into these service opportunities, there are other ways to obtain these opportunities. Volunteering to deliver meals to the elderly through the local council on aging or to read to children for the public library system can build relationships that may lead to an invitation for board service. Volunteering to advance the mission of these organizations might also provide insight on possible legal or regulatory challenges confronting the organization that a young attorney can help resolve.

Local or state boards and commissions offer positions in which new attorneys can build professional networks while contributing and exhibiting their talents in ways that employment settings may not readily allow. These boards and commissions invariably include lay members of the public who may bring valuable insight and experience but lack familiarity with the law. Local, state, and federal regulatory compliance issues often consume these entities. Therefore, these entities can benefit from the skills that young lawyers bring to tackle those issues.

A young attorney can bolster her reputation and professional credentials by exhibiting dedication, attention to detail, and a willingness to serve in the company of other professionals with whom she may not otherwise interact. For instance, the young attorney who may not work in a large law firm and therefore may not know leaders in the local bar association can generate meaningful relationships by serving with them on a public or nonprofit board.

Awareness of Fiduciary Responsibilities

While the benefits far outweigh the risks, fiduciary responsibilities often do come with serving on public boards and commissions. This form of service is not for mere résumé enhancement or networking. While all members serving on a public board or commission are held to the same standard, there are reputational risks for attorneys—young or otherwise—who allow impropriety, unethical behavior, or illegalities to occur unchecked on their watch. Young attorneys who volunteer in this capacity must be willing to invest the time to stay abreast of the agency’s activities as well as best practices in the industry that may impact the agency. When I served on my city’s transit board, I attended conferences where legal trainings were held. This not only gave me access to continuing legal education credits, but it also made me a more confident board member.

Service on boards and commissions can position young attorneys for success in their personal and professional endeavors. While it is important to weigh the options and consider the responsibility, the best way to learn is to jump right in. I personally have honed my skills as an attorney and expanded my network through years of service. For more than a decade, I have served on various public boards and commissions in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I currently serve on the Louisiana State Highway Safety Commission and have previously chaired the Capital Area Transit System Board of Directors.

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Christopher J. Tyson is the president and chief executive officer of Build Baton Rouge, where he leads land development and blight elimination efforts. He is currently on leave from his position as the Newman Trowbridge Distinguished Professor of Law at the LSU Law Center.