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How the legislative lawyer changes the world

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Few people understand how lawyers who specialize in lawmaking can do groundbreaking and vital work.

The legislative lawyer is probably a term you’ve never heard of, but it describes a lawyer who plays a pivotal role in promoting and implementing legislation essential for protecting civil rights and advancing social justice. And if you haven’t heard of the role of the legislative lawyer, surely you haven’t explored legislative lawyering as a career option.

As a law student, I had no idea who a legislative lawyer was or what one did. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in public interest law and “do good.” But I had no idea just how to do that. It was a property course that first piqued my interest in public policy.

My property professor always prompted students to consider the political and social contexts surrounding a particular case. Case outcomes, he asserted, weren’t objective or inevitable, but they were influenced by social and political considerations. “What’s the underlying policy?” he’d inquire as we considered concepts such as NIMBYism.

I continued to consider public policy during my summer internship experiences, and I was inspired to apply to a post-graduate fellowship focused on public policy for women’s rights.

Today, there are several post-graduate public policy programs (including fellowships offered by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. But when I graduated from law school, there were few. The experience prepared me for a public policy career, including serving as legislative counsel to a U.S. senator, policy counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., and now as a clinical professor running a policy-focused legal clinic.

Here’s a primer on the role of the legislative lawyer in moving policies that can promote social justice.

The need is now

Social justice and racial justice are terms that we’ve heard a lot over the last couple of years. As the world experienced a global pandemic and a racial reckoning in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, America also faced the election of the country’s first South Asian and Black vice president, as well as efforts to invalidate the election results—followed by a Capitol insurrection that laid bare the fragility of our democracy.

These events have exposed ongoing racial and social inequality. And they were followed by the passage of a spate of state legislation expected to curtail the voting rights of Black people and other people of color, as well as state legislation and policy measures [abaforlawstudents.com/cr…] that seek to exclude conversations about racism and sexism from public school classrooms.

Progress, particularly racial progress, is often followed by protracted efforts to undermine it. Even with ongoing, robust civil rights litigation, more is needed to maintain and protect hard-won civil rights.

As Sherrilyn Ifill, president/director-counsel of the LDF recently stated about the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 in The 19th, “We’re playing whack-a-mole. Litigation will not do it alone. Organizing can’t do it alone. We need this legislation.”

Legislation has historically proved a powerful lever to help address social injustice and secure civil rights. For example, state defiance, known as massive resistance, to Brown v. Board of Education was brought to its knees not only by ongoing litigation and organizing but also by passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The law, specifically its Titles IV and VI, articulated powerful federal oversight, investigative, and accountability duties that held states responsible for compliance with federal law. The law also ensured technical assistance to support states in identifying and implementing strategies to advance school desegregation. It helped to advance school desegregation across the nation, particularly in the recalcitrant south, and halt the passage of discriminatory state laws and policies designed to undermine the voting rights of Black people.

But legislation doesn’t just emerge organically. It takes coordinated work by a wide range of stakeholders—including advocates, lawyers, legislative staff, policymakers, and community organizers—to develop, draft, garner support for, secure passage of, and implement legislation that can help to promote social justice and protect civil rights.

The legislative lawyer defined

The role of the legislative lawyer is unique. As Chai Feldblum, founder of Georgetown University Law Center’s federal legislation and administrative law clinic, noted, “The art of legislative lawyering lies in combining a thorough knowledge of law, with a sophisticated understanding of politics, in order to devise creative and effective legislative and administrative solutions.”

Legislative lawyering is critically important, particularly in times of social and political unrest, to assist in the development of legislation that can protect hard-won civil rights. Deborah N. Archer calls this “political lawyering,” stating that its purpose isn’t to advance a partisan agenda but to represent disenfranchised communities against the forces of oppression.

The clients of legislative lawyers are those directly impacted by social injustice and may include coalitions, nonprofit organizations, youth groups, or even governmental entities. The legislative lawyer proposes different legislative and administrative strategies from an array of options—such as new legislation or public comment letters in response to proposed regulatory changes—to achieve a client’s policy goals or advance the client’s legislative agenda.

The legislative lawyer is a liaison between policymakers and legal experts. This requires a familiarity with the legislative process, whether local, state, or federal, and an understanding of when and how to intervene to advance a particular legislative goal.

It also requires an understanding into policymakers, their motivations, their constituencies, and their legislative goals. The legislative lawyer must be able to communicate with legal experts and explain the ebbs and flows of politics and why legislation may or may not advance. The practice also demands a familiarity with the substance of a particular issue—as familiar as the litigators and legal experts involved in the issue.

A day in the life

There’s no true typical day for legislative lawyers. However, their usual responsibilities may include:

  • Researching legislation
  • Drafting and sometimes delivering testimony before policymaking bodies on behalf of clients
  • Drafting legislative language or model legislation
  • Coalition-building and collaborating with a range of partners
  • Conducting administrative advocacy, including drafting and submitting public comment letters in response to proposed rulemaking
  • Facilitating and delivering public education sessions, such as know-your-rights trainings for a range of audiences

One of the key competencies of a legislative lawyer is communication. They must be adept in communicating with clarity the intricacies of complex issues to clients and other audiences. Busy policymakers rarely have time to absorb details of legislative measures or developments, and communicating in clear and concise language can’t be overemphasized.

The legislative lawyer must interface with various stakeholders. Often, they’re members of a variety of coalitions. This requires an understanding of how to build relationships with partners with different interests and operate with transparency and integrity.

Legislative lawyers can be found in nonprofit organizations, in state legislatures or other governmental entities, and even in academia. The possibilities are endless. And the need for legislative lawyers who can help secure legislation that protects civil rights is urgent.