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Help others navigate uncertain times: How you can (and should) serve the public without giving up your day job in private practice.

By: Patricia McHugh Lambert

To paraphrase businesswoman and activist Anita Roddick, if we lawyers can’t do something for the public good, what the heck are we doing? In today’s world where there is so much public uncertainty and need, these words should resonate to every lawyer’s core. But how should lawyers, particularly those of us in private practice, go about helping others navigate uncertainty and do something for the public good?

Traditionally, there have been two ways that lawyers have served the public good. The first way was to be a public interest lawyer. Every day, public interest lawyers go off to be warriors for the public good. Whether they work for the government or for a not-for-profit organization, they devote their professional lives to the public good.

The second traditional way for lawyers to serve the public good was for a lawyer to provide pro bono legal services. Many lawyers attempt to do something for the public good by meeting ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct Rule 6.1, which notes that every lawyer has a professional obligation to provide at least some legal services to those unable to pay. Pro bono lawyers attempt to help society by providing services to indigent individuals or by promoting social causes.

In addition to these two traditional ways, there is a third way for lawyers to work for the public good. They can be lawyers who do “public service,” even while working for private practice law firms. Doing public service does not require an attorney to give up his or her “day job.” Rather, attorneys can serve the public by participating in governmental boards and commissions.

Introduction to Government Boards and Commissions

Each state, county, and municipality has boards, commissions, and task forces. Governmental boards and commissions are varied. For example, there are boards and commissions that address issues concerning economic development, agriculture, disabilities, disadvantaged populations, the environment, voting, and the justice system. Some boards and commissions study social issues and make recommendations for future reform. Others seek to revise antiquated rules and regulations. Still others deal with the proposal or enforcement of regulations related to a specific profession—which may have limited impact on the public but a significant impact on those in that profession.

To fulfill their missions, boards and commissions are made up of individuals with a variety of skills. For example, boards that deal with economic development issues are likely to have some members who are economists or accountants. Boards that address agricultural issues are likely to include farmers. Commissions that regulate a profession most certainly will have someone in that profession as a member.

In addition to these mission-specific skills, every board and commission should have members who have legal skills. Lawyers think in a legalistic way, which is often needed to craft new laws and regulations. Lawyers understand how small differences in word choices can make major differences in contracts, position papers, and proposals for reform. Lawyers generally understand the importance of give-and-take. Most importantly, lawyers are generally strategic thinkers who can consider large amounts of information and then help shape strategy.

The Value Proposition

Serving on a governmental board or commission can be difficult when a lawyer is in private practice. With the increasing economic demands and challenges facing law firms, lawyers in private practice work long hours, including nights and weekends. A lawyer in private practice faces the stress of constant quick-turnaround deadlines, billing pressures, and round-the-clock client demands. Why, then, would a lawyer in private practice want to use his or her precious and limited time to serve on a board or commission? Here are a few reasons why doing public service when in private practice can be worthwhile:

  • Personal fulfillment. Choosing to do public service when in private practice can create a sense of personal satisfaction. As noted by Tennessee law professor Benjamin H. Barton, “[o]nly 44 percent of Big Law lawyers report satisfaction with their career, while 68 percent of public sector lawyers do.” Dissatisfied private practice lawyers may be able to find a sense of accomplishment by providing public service.
  • Résumé building. Most lawyers have gaps in their résumés—and public service can fill, in part, these gaps. For example, a lawyer may want to be a judge someday; but if that lawyer handles only civil cases, how can he or she convince others that he or she has the background to also hear criminal case? One way to gain experience in the criminal  justice area, without giving up a private civil practice, would be serve on a board or commission dealing with criminal justice issues. Other lawyers may want to dip their toes into a new area without taking a dive off the high dive. For example, lawyers who want to consider expanding their practice could serve on a board or commission that deals with a particular industry segment. Clients and prospective clients are often rightfully impressed by such service.
  • Public recognition. Let’s face it, most lawyers like a little recognition. As noted by Dale Carnegie, “[p]eople work for money but go the extra mile for recognition, praise and rewards.” Providing public service by serving on a board or commission is something that can gain a lawyer recognition. While seeking public recognition should not be a primary motivating factor for service, there is something satisfying about being able to say “the governor [or some other government official] appointed me.” And all sorts of people take notice of public service. Judges notice. Managing partners notice. Even the media notice public service. Lawyers providing public service often go from being unnoticed to being sought after for other things.
  • Legacy building. Legacy is about living in the present and working for the future. Some lawyers do not need to build a résumé and do not seek public recognition but want to leave a public legacy. While these lawyers might feel good by providing public service, the reason that they give back, with their time and talents, is to meet this calling to leave the world a better place. Serving on a board or commission can have an impact on a community, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in large ways. This legacy that lawyers leave behind might not be something that will be written about in the history books, but such efforts do make a difference.

Getting Appointed

Lawyers who want to serve the public while in private practice must consider how to obtain an appointment to a board or commission. Sometimes it is as simple as filling out an online application. But the best way is to determine the appointing authority and then find those who can recommend you to that authority. This can take some time and networking, but the effort generally pays off.

One word of caution: Lawyers who seek to do public service while in private practice should be open to a variety of opportunities and not be narrowly focused. For example, a person who might seek an appointment to a board that deals with pharmacies may be asked to serve on a board that will be writing new regulations for massage therapists. Lawyers should not be disappointed if they do not get their “first choice.” After all, detours in the road can provide great opportunities.

Public service is not for everyone. But for those who want to help others during this uncertain time and figure out “what the heck they are doing” for the public good, serving on a board or commission may be the answer. Lawyers owe it to themselves, their community, and the legal profession to try to make the world a better place.

Patricia McHugh Lambert is a principal and litigator at Pessin Katz Law, P.A., in Baltimore, Maryland. She serves as a member of the Maryland Commission for Women.

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