Getting Started in Government Relations: Advice for Law Students

What kind of positions or opportunities should a graduating law student pursue if they’re interested in government relations?  This is the question I’m trying to answer in this post and when I speak next week to University of Alabama law students that are in DC participating in a government relations externship program. Mike House at Hogan Lovells invited me to share my observations about getting started in DC.

Like many schools today, the University of Alabama recognizes that they must do more to make their students ready to practice law. For the students in Tuscaloosa interested in working in DC after graduation, this program offers an introduction to the city and particularly to working in government relations.

The U.S. Capitol

The U.S. Capitol

Two years ago, I spoke to the students about legal opportunities in the association world. Many association professionals stumble into the field, and this applies to lawyers too. Last year, I conducted a survey of colleagues that have been out of law school for at least ten years, and I shared their observations with the students.

This year I’m focusing on government relations because that’s what many of the students want to pursue when they graduate. When I graduated from law school I had a vague notion that I might want to work in government relations, but first I wanted to work for a Member of Congress. I’ve made some missteps along the way, but in hindsight working on Capitol Hill right after law school was one of the best moves that I’ve made.

The Washington, DC area is an exciting place to live and because the economy is so diverse there are lots of things that a lawyer can do that don’t involve government. I know lawyers that have successful and challenging careers that don’t have anything to do with government; finance, technology, real estate & construction, healthcare, and even professional sports – DC has it all. But if you’re moving here to work in government relations, you should make your first position one with the government.

Once you decide that the government is where you want to begin as a young lawyer, there are two main options; working on Capitol Hill, or for one of the many federal agencies or perhaps eventually experiencing both which I did.

Capitol Hill is one of the most interesting and exciting places to work in DC, as a result, the competition is pretty fierce for the jobs. But it’s also true that there is constant turnover on “the Hill” and if you’re persistent you will eventually find something. I got a break after the historic election of 1994 when my Congressman’s office helped me get a job in the Republican leader’s office. The person that helped me, Jo Bonner, went on to eventually be the Congressman from my hometown, and today he’s the Vice Chancellor of the University of Alabama System.

Cannon House Office Building - U.S. House of Representatives

Cannon House Office Building – U.S. House of Representatives

Capitol Hill isn’t the only place in government where a new lawyer can find a job. The city is home to dozens of federal agencies, and they all employ lawyers. The competition for these jobs is different. Turnover doesn’t happen nearly as often as it does on the Hill, and there is also more “paperwork” and bureaucratic hurdles than in Congressional offices. The good news is that media reports suggest that there is a wave of retirements just getting underway at the federal agencies and these positions will have to be filled.

Working on the Hill will expose you to lots of interesting and important people – Members of Congress, their staff, and lobbyists, that you will likely run into for the rest of your career in DC.  Every day on Capitol Hill presents an opportunity to meet leaders from that district or state.  Mayors, generals, distinguished business people – they all eventually come to Capitol Hill.

While at an agency you will have a chance to go deep on an issue or policy area and that will translate into value down the road. In my blog post last year I made the point that lawyers must eventually become an expert in something, but there’s plenty of time for this.  Deep issue area specialization can happen on the Hill or at an agency, but it’s probably more likely to happen sooner at an agency.

My first “real job” out of college was at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and after law school it was working in the U.S. House of Representatives in the Speaker’s Office.  Both experiences were exciting and to this day I use lessons learned in both of these offices.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - My first "real Job" out of college

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – My first “real job” out of college

You need to have a long term strategy, so it’s fine to take a job with the government even if you know you’re not going to retire there. But make sure that you stay in each position long enough. Looking back there were at least two times in my career when I moved too quickly. Now when I meet people working on the Hill I offer the following advice: Stay as long as you can. There’s no place like Capitol Hill, and once you leave you’ll probably miss it.

When I emerged from law school it was impossible for me to imagine where I am today. My interest in government relations lead me to an association management company which opened my eyes to the association world. Although I do occasionally practice law in my current position, it’s more accurate to say that as an association executive and consultant to associations I’m in a “JD-advantaged” position, meaning the critical thinking and communications skills that I picked up in law school benefit me in my work today even though it’s not the practice of law.

So the bottom line is pretty simple. There are many things that you can do in Washington, DC after law school, but if you want to get involved in government relations down the road your first step should definitely be a position on Capitol Hill or with a federal agency.

 

Russell Senate Office Building.  A really cool place to work
Russell Senate Office Building. A really cool place to work
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