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When the machinery of government gets gummed up, we often need help that goes beyond calling a legal expert. The answers are not in the law books. For small practitioners, the task of mastering local, state and federal issues in all the areas clients may need help with is simply impossible. Faced with an intractable bureaucracy, the extraordinary research tools of the Internet and online databases are useless. We need connections, entr�e, insider savvy and credibility. We learned in law school that the judiciary will not decide “political questions.” Political questions may involve crafting new legislation to help our clients, or interactions with governmental officials who may exercise broad discretion. These problems, and how we craft solutions, involve our lives, our communities and our professional standing. In the limited time that we have available to us, how do we get the machinery of government to work for us? Active participation in civic, or political, life may assist us in seeing and crafting positive solutions that will help our clients. Putting positive energy into the process and seeking constructive outcomes will garner the good will necessary to get support for our problems and complaints. Here are a few suggestions for getting involved: KNOW YOUR ELECTED AND APPOINTED OFFICIALS It is a simple matter to learn who your politicians representatives are. The New York Public Interest Research Group maintains a Web site at www.nypirg.org. Choose “Who Represents Me?” By entering your address and zip code, you’ll get contact information including fax phone and e-mail of everyone from President George W. Bush to your local Community Board. But there are many other people in government or in your community without official titles — and it takes time to learn who they are. LEARN ABOUT AVAILABLE STAFF RESOURCES Local, state and federal elected officials employ staff to engage in “constituent services.” It’s a common myth that one needs to be a personal friend of a politician to get help. In certain cases, of course it helps. But it’s surprising to many that constituent services offices will generally try to be helpful, regardless of political persuasion. The effectiveness will depend on the resourcefulness of the person answering the phone and the dedication of the official to finding solutions for constituents. CALL Rather than reflexively spending thousands on legal research, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask a few questions or to find out how to complain about a particular problem. Just remember: Whatever you are feeling angry about was probably not caused by the person on the other end of the phone. Be polite, but dogged. If they can’t help, ask them who can. WRITE Write a lawyerly letter objectively discussing the facts and setting forth your complaint or problem. If someone from the office was helpful, it is important to express thanks, particularly in written form. You’re reaching out to human beings, not necessarily the enemy. If one letter does not work, you may consider organizing a letter-writing campaign. For useful examples, many issue advocacy groups will draft suggested letters on issues important to the group and ask you to send them. RESEARCH ISSUE GROUPS If you are having a problem, chances are there is already a group of people out there confronting the same issue. This may be a trade association, an issue-oriented group or an individual who has confronted the problem publicly. A little research may lead you to a community of interest that will educate you on the issue and its history. Many groups cost little to join or provide free information. Almost all are willing to talk to you. You may be involved in drafting proposed legislation and asking for its enactment. PROPOSE NEW LEGISLATION You can actually propose new laws or changes in the law. There’s a good chance that if you or your clients are confronted with a problem you believe requires new legislation, there is someone else out there with the drafting and technical skills who would be willing to help. Getting a resolution or a law passed is a substantial undertaking, but if you find the support many others may do the heavy lifting. MAKE STRANGE BEDFELLOWS You may be surprised to learn who will help you. People of diverse ideologies come together on many issues. Regardless of political party, politicians were elected to help all the citizens they represent. Problems are neither Republican nor Democrat. We all need clean air to breathe, our garbage hauled away and to keep our children safe. As an attorney, put aside any partisan prejudices whenever you need to seek help for a client. SUPPORT THEM There are a number of ways you can support politicians who do a good job or associations that are doing a good job in educating and advocating for issues you support. Writing a thank-you letter, attending a fundraiser or even making a modest contribution goes a long way in showing others that those who are doing a job you approve of has constituent support. Many fundraisers or house parties cost little more to attend than a pair of movie tickets, if you are willing to skip the celebrity-studded ones. Volunteering to hold a house party is a great way of getting to know a candidate, and it is always appreciated. HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE As in any profession, there are those who do a terrific job and care deeply about the public trust. But there are also those who will betray their constituents in a variety of ways. As an attorney, one has a tremendous opportunity to document instances in which an elected official has either served or failed to serve the public trust. It is important, particularly during election times, that our profession speaks out and makes itself heard in local newspapers and other forums on a candidate’s record. RUN A CANDIDATE If you believe a problem is intractable, put a candidate on the ballot who supports your view. Depending on the office, gathering the necessary signatures may be easier than you think, although election law is fraught with technicalities. If the foregoing suggestions sound unattainable, read Robert Heinlein’s 1947 book Take Back Your Government: A Practical Handbook for the Private Citizen Who Wants Democracy to Work to get started. Begin by attending a few meetings of a local community or town board. You might find it more entertaining than you suspect. Our democracy will only function properly with full assistance from the citizenry. As a lawyer, this participation will strengthen your advocacy and organizing skills, enhance your problem-solving capacity and enable you, every once in a while, to just do a good deed. Raymond J. Dowd runs the commercial litigation practice of Dowd & Marotta. He serves on the board of directors of the New York County Lawyers’ Association.

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