It’s 6:30 PM. You’ve finally scraped together eight hours of billables for the day, and are ready to clock out. But you aren’t headed home. Tonight you’re voluntarily attending a local Zoning Board meeting that may run until midnight. Fun times!
Sacrificing precious free time to public service is something more young lawyers should be doing. It’s an often thankless job with awful hours, but holding a public office, or serving on a board or commission, is one way to honor the oath you swore as a member of the New Jersey bar.
The time is ripe to get involved. This January, New Jersey will swear in a new governor for the first time in eight years, the legislature will have some new faces in it, and there will also be numerous new officeholders at the county and local level, creating new opportunities for appointments across the government.
Board appointments benefit young lawyers in many ways. They allow a young attorney to meet new professional contacts, such as fellow board members, elected officials or important members of the community. These connections can lead to business opportunities or future appointments, all earned while giving back. Additionally, board membership can introduce a young attorney to an entirely new area of the law, which could one day become a practice area.
In turn, young lawyers also benefit the boards on which they serve. They can provide a much-needed generational viewpoint to our government, for instance offering a millennial perspective on urban development to a land use board. Boards also benefit from having attorneys as members, as we are trained to identify and address legal and policy questions. And young lawyers may have flexibility in their personal life that allows them to serve in positions others cannot.
Of course, before all of these benefits can be realized, young lawyers first must be appointed to a board or commission. The following are some recommendations on how to land your first nomination.
At the local level, appointments to municipal boards such as the Planning Board or Zoning Board are typically made by the mayor. In order to secure an appointment, young attorneys should consider getting involved in local political parties or becoming acquainted with governing body members through events. Municipalities always need new people to serve, and simply entering the local political network can quickly lead to an appointment. Sometimes just submitting a resume for consideration to the municipality works, too.
At the state level, most of the appointments to boards and commissions are made by the governor. However, no governor can fill every appointment on his or her own, so the Governor’s Office often looks to state legislators and county political party chairmen to recommend quality candidates for appointment. Young lawyers may find the most direct path to Trenton is through their county chairman’s or state legislator’s district office.
Young lawyers should also consider seeking appointments even if they are in the opposite party of the officeholders. A governor may be open to appointing members of the opposite political party to satisfy statutory requirements or to help secure advice and consent. For instance, at the state level, many boards require bipartisan membership, with specific seats designated for Democrats and Republicans. Also, opposite-party appointments are sometimes required as part of deal-making with the State Senate.
Whether one is seeking appointment to a local health board or the state Economic Development Authority, there are various considerations to bear in mind. First, keep an eye on your party affiliation and reportable donations, including those to PACs or attributable to your employer. They are often scrutinized before any appointment is made, particularly if you do not have a lengthy public record to review. Also, take into consideration applicable pay-to-play, ethics and conflict laws, as well as reporting requirements, to ensure an appointment would not impact your law practice. Finally, draft a version of your resume specifically for obtaining an appointment, perhaps highlighting political experience that you would otherwise omit from a work resume.
Millennials have recently surpassed baby boomers as America’s largest generation. It is critical that millennials become a greater part of the policy and legal decision making on state, county and local boards and commissions. Young lawyers should seize appointments, as they are unique public service opportunities that may also provide a professional and personal benefit.
The NJLJ Young Lawyers Advisory Board is a diverse group of young attorneys from around the state. Follow them on Twitter, @YoungLawyersNJL.