With primary season just behind us, and another election day fast approaching, I find myself increasingly occupied by what I believe to be a rarely-discussed problem facing young lawyers today. They simply are not being given sufficient opportunity to seek meaningful civic and political involvement.
While we hear much about the volunteer and community service efforts of young people, and even a certain amount about the political engagement of that same generation, young lawyers are, in my view, thwarted from finding a meaningful role in politics and public life by their employers’ own quest to improve the “bottom line” of their financial performance.
Recent studies and articles have documented some troubling trends: there are fewer lawyers in Congress today than there have generally been over the past five decades.1 U.S. Supreme Court Justices O’Connor and Kennedy have both made calls for increased civic education for young Americans, many of whom report a startling lack of awareness of our country’s basic political structure.2 And young people, as I see it, are not getting adequately involved in our country’s political matters.
In spite of these troubling facts, young people today have shown themselves overwhelmingly willing to volunteer, to participate in their communities and to try and improve our country in whatever small way they can. But they simply are not running for office or otherwise engaging directly in the political process—beyond those who can and do vote—on their own in the appropriate numbers.3
Furthermore, lawyers, particularly young lawyers, possess a unique educational outlook that allows them not only to understand the laws, but also to shape them in innovative and meaningful ways. They have the skills to read and interpret legislation; they are generally literate in civic matters and understand that policy can affect unexpected groups in unforeseen ways; they know how to plan for and mitigate risk. Additionally, younger generations can provide novel perspective on new ways to deal with some of the biggest problems facing society.
It was considering the contrast between my own experiences as a young lawyer as compared to the dearth of similar opportunities available to young lawyers today that compelled me to make my concern on this front clear.
I arrived at my “Wall Street firm,” Willkie Farr & Gallagher, in 1963. The following year, I thought to volunteer in Robert Kennedy’s New York Senate campaign. With some trepidation, I raised the subject with the firm’s then senior partner, Harold Gallagher, in the hope of taking a week from the firm in addition to working in the campaign on my own time. Mr. Gallagher, a Republican and confidant to 1940 Republican-presidential-nominee Wendell Willkie, heard me out and simply said: “Take a month away from the firm and we’ll pay you, too.” I later learned that the partnership was pleased to support my effort.
The support I received from my firm didn’t end there. In 1965, I was allowed to absent myself again to work on a mayoral campaign which included the candidacy for the then office of president of the New York City Council, of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 1966, I stood for the state Legislature. Not only did the firm’s support continue during my years as a member of the Assembly and Senate, but I also became partner during the course of my public service. Without the support and encouragement of Willkie Farr, these undertakings would almost certainly not have seemed possible to me.
Furthermore, I was not alone at that time. For example, then State Senator Harrison J. Goldin was an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell, and Oliver Koppell, a member of the Assembly, was at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
Since that time, I have noted with dismay a noticeable trend away from public and political affairs on the part of young men and women who start and continue their careers in New York City’s major law firms and financial and commercial entities. The professional demands of their lives are great, leaving little, if any, time for participation in the public processes of this great city. It is true that opportunities for involvement in any number of pro bono causes are now available generally within the law firms and corporate in-house-counsel offices. Great strides have been made in that respect. Many corporations and banks provide time off for charitable pursuits.4 Law firms are heavily involved in pro bono legal representation.5
Sorely lacking, however, is any structured mechanism for involvement in New York’s political life and its public affairs. Granted, the young New Yorkers of whom I speak can participate “on their own time,” during evenings and weekends. That, however, does not provide for realistic or meaningful participation in all but the rarest of cases, given the intensity and time requirements of the professional aspect of their careers, as well as the demands on what little time may be left for family and friends.
Something more is necessary than simply leaving these folks to pursue political and public involvement on a tangential basis.
I believe that what we need is a recognition and consequent commitment by New York’s legal and corporate establishments to encourage and support their “best and brightest” in public and political life.
This support need not be identical to the support I received. There are many ways in which law firms could encourage political engagement that further those firms’ interests. For example, signing bonuses are paid as a matter of course to law clerks (and credit for the clerkship year given in calculating an associate’s seniority). Surely there are political positions or activities that provide similarly valuable experience to budding litigators, advisors and corporate attorneys. Political involvement could also be integrated into a firm’s existing pro bono program.
Finally, firms could consider whether they can encourage political participation as part of their business development programs.
There are, of course, concerns to be dealt with. Disclosures by public participants and employer/client confidentiality obligations may be somewhat at odds. The law firm or commercial entity supporting the young lawyers’ political involvement will experience some financial offset and may have to report such.
But these are not insurmountable if, indeed, the goal is to encourage the presence of our professional youth in the affairs of our democracy. That presence ought be made to happen sooner rather than later. Young lawyers do have good ideas. Our society will be the better for their current active involvement. Of course, there always are others to take up the task. How sad, however, when the political process does not have the benefit of the talented group of which I speak.
Accordingly, I now seek to raise this issue in the midst of yet another election cycle, with the hopes of shedding early light on a problem that will only worsen in its impacts if it goes unaddressed. It is time for law firms and corporate entities in this city to begin thinking of their “bottom line” in a new light and assigning tangible value to civic and public participation. Only in this way will all young lawyers have a real chance to help and shape the future of a city, state and country that we all hold dear.
Chester J. Straub is a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals on the Second Circuit .
1. Eric Lane, “Send More Lawyers to Congress,” New York Law Journal, Sept. 5, 2013.
2. Id.; “Supreme Court Justice Kennedy Encourages ABA to Revitalize Civic Education,” ABA Division for Communications and Media Relations, Aug. 11, 2013.
3. See Michael Tackett, “Democrats Win as Youth Avoid Politics Via Elected Office,” Bloomberg News, July 19, 2013.
4. Sarah Halzack, “Paid time off for volunteering gains traction as way to retain employees,” The Washington Post, Aug. 11, 2013.
5. Ranking the Firms’ Pro Bono Work, The American Lawyer, July 1, 2013, at 48.