Legal Practice

From Practice to Policy: Switching to policy work from your legal practice

Now that I’ve been working in policy for almost a year, I feel like I have a good sense of what works, what doesn’t, and have been surprised at how well the traditional lawyer skills translate into good policy work. What I view traditional lawyering includes one-on-one client representation, client counseling, trust-building, investigation, and a zealot-like approach to getting the best deal for your client.

Policy work is different. It is community-focused, data-driven, there’s sometimes tension with decisions, and a lot of cooks in the kitchen who get input on who/when programs/policies are put in place. I also work within local government, so there’s no avoiding the historical trauma experienced by communities.

Even with those differences, I quickly saw how the foundational skills of lawyering improved my policy practice. I know many are interested in policy and so I want to share some of skills to work on in law school and in your early career to help strengthen your policy practice:

One. Trial Advocacy. Even if you don’t plan on being a litigator, strengthening your trial advocacy skills is the smart thing to do. It teaches you how to think on your feet, how to present your information in a tense setting, and how to present a story. In the world of policy, you may not go in front of a judge, but you may need to present your decision/information in situations were people are skeptical and overly-critical; perhaps decision-makers who are not experts, but are wary of what you’re presenting or to community groups, who are experts, but upset about past decisions (let’s be real, policy decisions are not often kind to communities of color). Knowing how to keep your cool and present a cogent argument will make all the difference in how your policy advances.

Two. Client Counseling. There are some major decisions that only clients decide (settlements, testifying, etc), but beyond that–you are the queen of your case. You decide the strategy and all that it entails. Creating a theory and advancing the case requires decisive action based on your research and analysis. And you have to buy into what you’re selling to not only persuade the adjudicator, but to build trust with your client that you are the right person for the job and that they should trust and listen to you. The more you interact with clients, the better you become at presenting options and counseling them on the best course of action. In policy, decisions are sometimes difficult to come by because those said multitude of cooks in the kitchen who maybe aren’t used to decisive action. But I have found that policies and programs advance faster/better when one is comfortable in saying, “the data says this therefore we should do X,” and stand by your analysis. That’s not always easy for folks to do, but the more you practice guiding clients to a decision they’re comfortable with, the better you will be at advancing policy decisions overall.

Three. Writing Skills. Lawyers are writers. We are trained to bring precision and story-telling to our writing in order to advance our cause. In policy, writing is different. It may be more white papers, more guidelines, more data analysis and not as much convincing (though some), but the gift of clarity and persuasion works here too. Being a strong writer working in policy means you can present your information in clear, concise manner. It especially means you can explain issues to non-experts to help them understand why your work is necessary and garner more support that way.

Again even if you know you want to do policy work, I still highly encourage you to work on those foundational lawyering skills: advocacy, counseling, and writing. If you focus on those three skills it will make you a stronger attorney overall and heighten the skills needing to advance a career in policy.