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A good rule of thumb is to avoid discussions about politics in the office — at all costs! This advice is often dispensed at the early stages of our careers. For example, career counseling offices at many law schools warn students to extract themselves from political discussions during on-campus interviews, while recruiting offices at law firms deliver the same message to lawyers who are conducting the interviews. However, as lawyers, do we have a particular responsibility to be “political” that exempts us from this rule? This is an especially relevant question during this election year. As the media bombards us with images from the campaign trails, and politics moves to the forefront of conversations inside and outside of the workplace, consider following another rule: Be political about politics in the office. In the suburbs, there are bumper stickers on cars; in cities, subways and bus stops are favorite spots for local political activists. Regardless of where you live or work, the fact remains that everyone seems to have an opinion about who should prevail in the battle for our nation’s highest offices. But what about the battles being waged in our offices? While “spirited” discussions are underway in the attorney dining halls and conference rooms at law firms across the country, it is difficult to determine whether one should jump into the fray. The cons are almost too numerous to contemplate, but consider a few: You may find yourself on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the partner-in-charge of the law firm where you are (currently) employed, or even from your client. You may reveal yourself to be overwhelmingly and shamefully ignorant of the important national institutions when you are unable to name all nine sitting Supreme Court justices (in order of appointment). You may cross the invisible, constantly shifting line of the “appropriate” level of political speech in the office, and thereafter be branded by your less-provocative colleagues as the “angry associate.” On the other hand, we are expected to be intelligent, thoughtful, contributing members of our society who are aware of the issues and events that will have a meaningful impact on, and influence over, the business and economic affairs of our clients. The victor in the 2004 presidential election may very well have the opportunity to appoint Supreme Court justices, and thus will affect the interpretation of our governing law; he will determine who will enforce antitrust laws and the country’s immigration policies; he will influence whether there will be a reduction or increase in our taxes; he will have the option of appointing the administrators that set interest rates that help drive the real estate market; and he will set the policies governing how our criminal laws are prosecuted. No matter what type of law you practice, this year’s political activities will have a direct impact on your work as well as on your life. Perhaps an illustration would be helpful here. I graduated from law school in 2000 and started at my law firm in the midst of the infamous Bush/Gore election controversy. The national political climate was electrifying, polarized — a hotbed for legal pundits to opine over the philosophical and historical principles that would help to restore calm to our political institutions. On one occasion, before I had mastered the skill of securing a car in the middle of a torrential downpour, a wiser, infinitely more adept partner offered to share a car and drop me off on his way home. During our car ride, he turned the conversation to current affairs and asked my opinion of who had the better legal argument in connection with the contested election results: Bush or Gore. Now, I had barely been at the firm for a month and had no idea of this particular partner’s ideological leanings. Not willing to stick my neck on the proverbial chopping block, I answered: “Yes, well, they both make a good point don’t they — it is not for me, but for our legal experts to decide.” So I punted. In retrospect, it would have been better for me to articulate and defend a position — any position, as long as I did so intelligently. And yet, so early in your career, when you are trying to avoid any misstep, it can seem like simply expressing your opinion is tantamount to sealing your professional fate. Try to keep some perspective. To the extent that you address political issues in the context of their effect on your professional activities, discussions about politics at the office can be entirely appropriate. The trick is to be mindful of avoiding issuing political pronouncements or judgments on the political views of others. Obviously, there are some legal institutions and workplaces that by their nature, and in their very mission statements, are more “political” than others. There will also be certain offices that tolerate, or even encourage, a greater level of political debate than others. When in doubt, however, it may serve you well to steer clear of making conversations about politics in the office personal. An intelligent conversation about the nation’s political state need not be a sermon on the evils of one political party or another. Likewise, it is not inevitable that the 2004 presidential elections will spark fistfights in the hallways of law firms far and wide. Just as with most aspects of office politics, the discussions that you have about politics in the office will require you to exercise good judgment. Even if you are tempted to be drawn into heated political debates, remember that this does not give you carte blanche to ignore the mores of professional behavior. Also remember that long after the dust settles from this year’s political debates, your reputation will govern how your colleagues evaluate you. Be careful not to tarnish that reputation by attacking a political position, rather than engaging your colleagues in thoughtful debate over political issues. The distinction is often less easy to make than one would imagine. Nonetheless, it is very important to try to make the right determination about what is appropriate before wading into political waters at work. I wish I could tell you that this issue will one day be free from controversy, but the reality is that the fine line separating appropriate from inappropriate political discussions in the office will likely remain in place. There is hope, however, that as you learn to negotiate the larger politics of your office’s social environment, that line will become a bit clearer, and making these types of determinations really will get easier. Sharon C. Brooks is an associate in the New York office of Los Angeles-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. She can be reached at [email protected]

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