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Public Service

Lobbying as an Attorney and Prosecutor

Jennifer Patricia Noble

Lobbying as an Attorney and Prosecutor
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Nevada’s part-time citizen legislature convenes in the state capital every other February. As the deer who freely wander about town barely look up from their grassy breakfasts, scores of lobbyists descend upon the small township of Carson City in preparation for the frenzied session. They wheel their suits, laptops, and lives into Holiday Inns and small short-term apartments, hunkering down to witness and influence 120 days of triage that is decidedly short on glamour but abundantly important to the lives of millions of Nevadans. Since 2017, it has been my privilege to join them as part of a legislative team representing Nevada’s elected district attorneys.

While employed as a prosecutor, the professional ethics rules of lobbying can be complex and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. If you are an attorney—especially a prosecutor—who plans to dip your toes into the lobbying waters, make sure you understand the lobbying rules and that your administration has approved your planned legislative activities. Additionally, you may be in for quite a culture shock. Skills you honed inside the courtroom may not be as effective in a legislative environment. Whether you are advocating for prosecutors in your area throughout a legislative session or just testifying regarding a particular bill, here are a few tips to help you along the way.

Listen with an Open Mind

The national discourse has been flooded with calls for criminal justice reform. State legislatures across the country are looking closely at measures concerning prosecutorial power, bail reform, and alternatives to incarceration. As a legislative advocate, you are likely to find yourself in environments or discussions hostile to law enforcement. Your intentions and credibility may be openly challenged because you are a prosecutor. It can be tough not to take this personally. But to make sure you are included in these critical discussions, make clear to legislators and opponents that while you might not be able to support a piece of legislation, you are always willing to listen. Take the time to hear about individual and community experiences contributing to a distrust of prosecutors and law enforcement in general.

Even when you are opposed, make it clear that you are willing to work with stakeholders to find common ground. Just as in a courtroom, our interest is justice, not winning. Be prepared to offer creative ideas that might help promote legislative goals without sacrificing public safety or victim rights.

Leave Your Closing Argument at Home

As prosecutors, we are used to asking hard questions but not necessarily answering them. We present the facts of our case and then argue those facts to the jury, often passionately. Legislative testimony does not quite work that way. The first time I testified regarding proposed legislation, I prepared remarks that were more appropriate for a closing argument rather than an informational exchange with the committee. I learned over time that while it is crucial to make a good record of your concerns, it is equally critical to acknowledge the sponsor’s work and intentions and prepare for compromise. Be open to the sponsor’s and other legislators’ suggestions, be able to answer questions about your agency’s processes and principles, and be mindful that lobbying is more of a conversation than a closing argument.

Be Tactful but Honest—Even When It Hurts

At times, lawmakers may approach you with a well-intended bill that is just a bad idea from a functional standpoint. The proposed bill may seek to benefit victims, but may ultimately lack teeth or practical application. Or, it could aim to clear up one area of law, but at the expense of muddying other statutes.

It can be challenging to tell an excited legislator that their bill will not work—it’s not always easy to do. As government employees, we do not always enjoy the same access and influence as lobbyists representing the private industry. But, what we do have to offer is our subject matter expertise and unyielding candor. Over time, you can establish yourself as a dependable source of information and insight and the first person a legislator calls when they want an honest take on the effect of their bill.