It’s a natural step from lawyer to law-maker. Who better to write the laws that govern society than the people who understand the law best? But a career in politics isn’t always good fit. Spending time on fund-raising calls can be a turn-off; legislating part-time can be a financial hit; commuting to the state capital is a time sink, especially with a family. For lawyers who are interested in politics but don’t want to make the leap to running for office, there are a number of options that can engage you with the process without putting the rest of your life on hold.
If you are passionate about a specific issue anywhere on the political spectrum—from environmental justice to second amendment rights; from equal pay to religious freedom—as an attorney you can offer invaluable service and expertise to organizations who advocate for that position within your state legislature. If you are supportive of the minority position, odds are those organizations are short on cash. Your contribution of a few hours a week of legal assistance could be the difference between success and failure in the legislative process. You can review legislation and propose changes that could prevent problems with implementation. Seek these organizations out and ask how you can help them.
When the legislature is in session, pay attention to specific legislation on the issue you are following. If your schedule allows, attend committee hearings at the Capitol to express your support or dissent. If you want to speak in favor, make the offer to speak to the legislator who introduced the bill; if you are opposed, speak to the committee chair and inform them you want to speak against the legislation. If you can make the time, even if you are not permitted to speak, go to the committee hearings anyway. Introduce yourself to the committee members and let them know your opinion.
Another approach toward issue advocacy is to work with your own state legislators. Find out what committees they serve on. Schedule meetings with them without asking for anything. Just introduce yourself and tell them about your interests. Make yourself available to them as a resource on areas where you have expertise. Most importantly, develop a friendly relationship. Your representatives are exactly that—your representatives. Share your opinion on legislation coming up both in committee and for a full vote. If you care about the issue, make sure they know what you think. You will find that your opinion carries more weight with them as you commend them for good votes, express disappointment for “bad” votes, and remain friendly throughout the process. Cultivate a good relationship, and when faced with a tough vote, they will be more likely to hear what you say even if they don’t always vote the way you want.
If you are more interested in elections and campaigns—in getting candidates into office who will advocate for a range of issues rather than for a single issue that you care about—then working with a political party may be a better fit. Political parties have committees at the county, state, and national levels. The national committees’ members are elected by the state committees, but the membership of the county and state committees are determined by state and local election codes and party by-laws. For members of the minority party, memberships on these committees at the local levels can be easy to come by, with more seats than people to fill them. The party committees often have standing committees and subcommittees for functions such as by-laws and finance. This is another opportunity to put your specific expertise to work for the benefit of your party.
The work the party committees do within their communities is varied and interesting: voter registration drives; fundraising for get-out-the-vote efforts; candidate recruitment; and good, old-fashioned political rallies. Working on local and state-wide party activities provides networking and training opportunities in fundamentals such as fundraising, communications, and voter outreach. Even if you don’t run for office, applying these tools in local races for your party’s candidates can make a difference in a closely fought campaign.
The “in the trenches” aspect of partisan political work is volunteering. Big national campaigns and state-wide races get all of the attention, but smaller, local races can have a greater impact on a community. Take the training and tools available through the political campaigns, apply them to a local race, and get to work. Organize volunteers, put together a fundraiser, run a phone bank, set up a canvassing team, knock on doors and turn out the vote for your candidate. Working a campaign is hard work while you’re doing it, but it has a hard stop date—Election Day.
If voter education and civic engagement is more your style than hands-on politicking, then non-partisan action groups may be a good fit. For example, the League of Women is a national organization with chapters in every state and many counties. They create candidate profiles and issue guides, promote and oppose issues (though never candidates), work to increase community engagement, educate voters, and increase voter turnout.
Are You Sure You Don’t Want to Run?
Finally, don’t rule out running for office. You don’t have to run now. And you may not ever run at all. But if good candidates don’t run, nothing will stop bad candidates from winning.