Sep.19, 2018 – Although lawyers have unique education and training to understand the political system, fewer attorneys serve as political leaders today, at least in Wisconsin. For instance, of the 132 members of the Wisconsin Legislature, only 14 are lawyers.
Recently, a panel of lawyers discussed how their law background has helped them in politics, and encouraged more lawyers to get involved in public service at the state and local levels. In this video, they provide some post-panel insight.
“Attorneys can contribute so much to public life and to making our government work, including seeking election to public office,” said David Prosser, who served almost 20 years in the Wisconsin Assembly, rising to Assembly Speaker, before serving another 18 years as a justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. He retired in 2016.
“Good intentions in writing legislation are not enough,” Prosser said. “You have to look at the words. Somebody is going to interpret those words.”
Prosser, along with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, State Sen. Lena Taylor, and State Rep. Cody Horlacher – all lawyers – sat on a panel this summer at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s 2018 Annual Meeting and Conference, to discuss their experiences.
“I always felt it was a real advantage for me to have a law background, getting into politics,” said Mayor Barrett, who worked in the federal court system and in private practice before launching his political career. “It gives you a confidence and a competence to really be able to navigate the system. It gives you analytic skill and tools that make you looker deeper and ask more questions.”
Sen. Taylor said voters were impressed to learn that she is a lawyer, when on the campaign trail, and her legal background made it easier to understand that people can agree to disagree, to keeping moving forward although opinions may differ.
Rep. Horlacher said the law degree added to his credibility. “The law degree has been my biggest asset,” said Rep. Horlacher, who previously served as an assistant district attorney in Walworth County and worked in the Public Defender’s Office.
“Anyone who wants to get involved in politics, whether directly or through commissions or boards, it’s a great way to get involved in your community,” Mayor Barrett said. “It’s a natural fit for people who like the law to get involved in lawmaking, or interpreting the laws.”
Want to Watch the Panel Discussion?
Watch the full panel discussion, in which six panelists discuss the nuts and bolts of campaigning and the challenges of public life, from ethical considerations and conflicts of interest, to transitioning and balancing a law practice with your political obligations.