Whether you’re interested in politics or you want to help facilitate certain changes in your future practice area, the ABA’s Grassroots Action Center is the absolute best place for you to get involved.
I sat down with Director of Grassroots and Digital Advocacy Eric Storey and Grassroots Specialist Allison Rosenstock to discuss the center’s initiatives and structure and how law students can help facilitate positive legislative change.
Q: What does it mean to get involved with the Grassroots office?
Storey: Our main goal is to get as many legal professionals and law students engaged in the federal process as possible, and that ranges from hosting social media campaigns to personally connecting legal professionals with their elected officials. Having some medium to be able to communicate the issues that are moving in Congress directly to law students and new lawyers is absolutely vital.
Q: What kinds of initiatives does your office champion?
ES: We handle everything from social issues, such as the immigration debate, all the way down to procedural issues attorneys deal with in their practice.
Q: How do you determine what you’ll lobby for?
ES: For us to lobby on something nationally, we have to have a policy approved by the ABA House of Delegates. We try to keep with issues moving in Congress that have a wide acceptance rate among our legal professionals and things on which we have clear policies.
Q: One of the topics I’m personally interested in is regulating solitary confinement of juveniles. Is this currently before any committee?
ES: It is, and we just released an article in our Washington Letter about mandatory minimums for juveniles. It seems like a slam-dunk, white-hat sort of issue, but for some reason, there are holdups and barriers throughout that we’ve outlined in this article. We’re definitely going to put some assets behind that moving forward.
Q: What’s the Washington Letter, and how can students sign up for it?
ES: It’s found at ambar.org/washingtonlett…. This is a monthly publication Allison and I put out. It’s got great articles, advocates of the month, legislative research tips, and things like that. We’re about to launch our ABA Connect platform, which will be our community where everyone can weigh in. Students can talk back and forth to each other. We’re very much looking forward to releasing that in the new year.
Q: What can law students do to help prepare the Grassroots office for its lobbying?
ES: Students have a unique advantage, where the communication and social media platforms have really opened up the floodgates of connecting directly with your representatives. Students now are digitally savvy; they understand how the system works. So even though some of the more well-versed sections of the profession really have their connections, students who are able to leverage their online footprint are just as effective.
What we have on our Grassroots Action Center is our social media center. Students can go onto it any time to see the social media campaigns we have in the pipeline.
We also have suggested posts that they can use, as well as images and infographics we make for them, and they can then post those and get the most out of their reach.
Q: That’s phenomenal; half the battle is knowing what to post.
ES: That’s what we thought. We also have tools on our Grassroots Action Center that allow you to send pre-formatted messages and emails to your elected officials. All you do is find a subject you’re interested in—such as the mandatory minimum campaign that’s now running— enter your first name, last name, email address, and home address, and then a pre-formatted email directly to your member of Congress comes up. You can edit it or just click send and be done with it in a matter of seconds.
Q: There’s literally no excuse not to do it.
ES: There literally isn’t. We thought, is Congress really listening? We asked every single office what they thought about this, and about 54 percent said getting these messages is extremely impactful and that the messages had a lot of, or some, positive influence in moving the needle. If you go in and add a sentence or two about yourself and what you believe, that increases the rate to 94 percent. Absolutely incredible.
The same study asks about social media messages. The craziest thing to me is that 79 percent of Congressional offices said fewer than 30 posts is enough to have a meaningful and substantial impact. All we need to do in a state is get 30 people to tweet using the same hashtag, and it’s a genuine mover in the mind of a Congressional office.
Q: How can students find the hashtags?
ES: Go to our social media center on the Grassroots website or follow us on Twitter at @abagrassroots.
Rosenstock: It’s almost ridiculously easy for anyone to get involved, especially students, who are probably the most social media savvy out of anyone. As the days go on, Eric and I are aging out, and students are the ones coming up. They’re the ones who will be the champions of this through the profession, and having them spearheading the effort is absolutely amazing for us.
They’re excited, which is also great.
Q: Can you tell me about any new initiatives?
AR: We’re in the process of launching our election center. The ABA is nonpartisan, so this entire election center is to inform people about where they can vote, the absentee rules in their state, how to get registered if they aren’t already, and how to check their registration status.
There are materials on who’s running for president, basic information about them and their platforms, their website, and where you can get more information on the candidates, as well as who’s up for reelection or new candidates for Congress. We also want to have one place to not only check on their own status and do their own personal voting, but also find out things like how to volunteer to be a poll worker. All the information is there to do that as well.
Q: Do you have anecdotes about anyone who got involved as a student and transitioned into a more prominent ABA role as an attorney?
AR: Andrew VanSingel was a rising star in the Young Lawyers Division; he serves as the coordinator of and now lends his time as a special advisor to the ABA’s Disaster Legal Services team. [Editor’s note: Check out VanSingel’s article for the November/ December issue of Student Lawyer on DLS] He was featured in the September 2019 Washington Letter.
ES: VanSingel did it the exact right way on how to stay in a leadership position with the ABA and transfer all the way up. He really went out and got engaged in the issues that he was interested in. There are so many different committees and assignments that it’s easy to get involved. We’d encourage everybody who’s interested in anything to find the group that best relates to it and dive in headfirst.
Q: Tell me what brought you to this position in the Grassroots office specifically? Why are you passionate about this initiative within the ABA?
ES: I really see the legal profession as having the ability to be the most influential in Washington, D.C. The legal profession understands the legal process and the legislative process better than any other group of people—they just needed somebody to organize them and show them how they can best engage. (There are more elected officials with law degrees than any other degree in Congress, with 52 percent in the Senate and 36 percent in the House.) I saw a unique opportunity that an enormous industry could have enormous influence if they just attacked it in the right way. That’s what brought me here.
Q: What’s your call to action for law students reading this article?
ES: The most important thing they can do is join the Grassroots Action Team. That will plug them in to the federal legislative sphere and allow them to hear any time, anything that’s happening in the federal government and how they can get involved.
The Grassroots Action Team is a group of engaged legal professionals who are interested in what’s happening in Washington, D.C., and want to do something about it. We take all the guesswork out of it for them; we give them the materials; we design everything specifically for their members of Congress for each issue we want to champion to be able to present this information.
Joining that group will get them plugged in to what’s going on and what’s coming up on the horizon as well as get them plugged in with some of the assets and online tools they can use to really make an impact.
Q: What do you say to students who haven’t looked at things such as lobbying because they may not want to get into politics—how do you encourage them to treat this as an important extension of the type of law they want to do?
AR: One thing I learned coming to work at the ABA was that any member can go through the process to get policies passed that the ABA will then have the ability to lobby. So it’s not necessarily just sitting on the politics side of it; if something is important to them in whatever area of law they’re interested in, they can go through that process to figure out if the ABA has a policy on it. There are a lot of things there that the ABA has priorities and policies on that might be important to them that they just don’t know it’s there.
There’s a way to have their voice heard, on both sides, by the ABA House of Delegates, and then also to Congress. We’re happy to hear what any members have to say if they’d like to contact us. It’s our goal to position the legislative aspect of the ABA, and all the lobbyists who come with it, and all the research done on Capitol Hill, as a member benefit. When members join the ABA, they’re hiring lobbyists. They’re hiring eyes and ears on Capitol Hill.