Encouraging Political Participation by Young Lawyers
With primary season just behind us, and another election day fast approaching, I find myself increasingly occupied by what I believe to be a rarely-discussed problem facing young lawyers today. They simply are not being given sufficient opportunity to seek meaningful civic and political involvement.
While we hear much about the volunteer and community service efforts of young people, and even a certain amount about the political engagement of that same generation, young lawyers are, in my view, thwarted from finding a meaningful role in politics and public life by their employers' own quest to improve the "bottom line" of their financial performance.
Recent studies and articles have documented some troubling trends: there are fewer lawyers in Congress today than there have generally been over the past five decades.1 U.S. Supreme Court Justices O'Connor and Kennedy have both made calls for increased civic education for young Americans, many of whom report a startling lack of awareness of our country's basic political structure.2 And young people, as I see it, are not getting adequately involved in our country's political matters.
In spite of these troubling facts, young people today have shown themselves overwhelmingly willing to volunteer, to participate in their communities and to try and improve our country in whatever small way they can. But they simply are not running for office or otherwise engaging directly in the political process—beyond those who can and do vote—on their own in the appropriate numbers.3
Furthermore, lawyers, particularly young lawyers, possess a unique educational outlook that allows them not only to understand the laws, but also to shape them in innovative and meaningful ways. They have the skills to read and interpret legislation; they are generally literate in civic matters and understand that policy can affect unexpected groups in unforeseen ways; they know how to plan for and mitigate risk. Additionally, younger generations can provide novel perspective on new ways to deal with some of the biggest problems facing society.
It was considering the contrast between my own experiences as a young lawyer as compared to the dearth of similar opportunities available to young lawyers today that compelled me to make my concern on this front clear.
I arrived at my "Wall Street firm," Willkie Farr & Gallagher, in 1963. The following year, I thought to volunteer in Robert Kennedy's New York Senate campaign. With some trepidation, I raised the subject with the firm's then senior partner, Harold Gallagher, in the hope of taking a week from the firm in addition to working in the campaign on my own time. Mr. Gallagher, a Republican and confidant to 1940 Republican-presidential-nominee Wendell Willkie, heard me out and simply said: "Take a month away from the firm and we'll pay you, too." I later learned that the partnership was pleased to support my effort.
The support I received from my firm didn't end there. In 1965, I was allowed to absent myself again to work on a mayoral campaign which included the candidacy for the then office of president of the New York City Council, of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 1966, I stood for the state Legislature. Not only did the firm's support continue during my years as a member of the Assembly and Senate, but I also became partner during the course of my public service. Without the support and encouragement of Willkie Farr, these undertakings would almost certainly not have seemed possible to me.
Furthermore, I was not alone at that time. For example, then State Senator Harrison J. Goldin was an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell, and Oliver Koppell, a member of the Assembly, was at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
Since that time, I have noted with dismay a noticeable trend away from public and political affairs on the part of young men and women who start and continue their careers in New York City's major law firms and financial and commercial entities. The professional demands of their lives are great, leaving little, if any, time for participation in the public processes of this great city. It is true that opportunities for involvement in any number of pro bono causes are now available generally within the law firms and corporate in-house-counsel offices. Great strides have been made in that respect. Many corporations and banks provide time off for charitable pursuits.4 Law firms are heavily involved in pro bono legal representation.5