By Claire E. Parsons • November 09, 2018•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Politics and Government, Issues, Other Issues
This week, a historic number of women were elected to Congress and a record number of women ran in and won other races nationwide. If I had to pick a single word to describe this situation, it would be this: awesome. We need more women and diverse voices in government. But what you may not have heard about in the coverage of the recent elections is that the need to increase the representation of women extends to unelected government positions as well. In particular, women do not make up a fair proportion of the people serving on state and local boards and commissions in numerous jurisdictions. Because women lawyers may be uniquely suited to fill these roles, I wanted to write to encourage you to consider service on a state or local board or commission.
The vast majority of my practice has been devoted to the representation of local governments. As a result, I have seen numerous ways that ordinary citizens can engage with government even if they don’t want or aren’t ready to run for office. Many states, counties, and cities create public boards and commission to manage the affairs of government that legislative and executive bodies aren’t equipped to handle.
For instance, most cities have commissions or boards relating to parks, trees, code enforcement, and even recreation activities. County and state boards similarly exist to manage affairs relating to transportation, education, ethics, and health. In many cases, it is necessary to be appointed to these positions but citizens can often submit applications to be considered. Thus, if you are interested in finding a board or commission to serve on, you should check the website for your state or local government for listings. It may also be helpful to reach out to one of your elected officials to discuss potential opportunities and the ways that your background can be of use.
In my experience, it is not necessary to be an expert in the subject area before seeking appointment on a board or commission. For example, I serve on the Council on Aging for my county which oversees the delivery of services to aging populations. I have minimal experience in this area, but I have found that much of the substance of the council’s work is procedural in nature, which as an attorney, I was specially trained to understand. Moreover, the Council had numerous members who work in aging services and gets regular updates from agency staff who are specifically knowledgeable about the work to be done. What the Council needed, however, was additional voices from the community to use their judgment and different perspectives to help make good decisions. As a lawyer, this is what I do every day.
Just because I used the word “procedural,” however, should not suggest that the work is merely serving as a rubber stamp. To the contrary, the work of state and local boards and commissions, directly contributes to your community and, thus, you and your family. As a board member, you could set policy for your public library. You could help to plan a new park. You could ensure that the code in your city is enforced, so that properties are adequately maintained in your neighborhood.
Moreover, much like other forms of community service, I have found that serving on public boards or commissions is beneficial because it is good networking that has helped me build my reputation and develop referral sources. In other words, service on a board or commission will put you in contact with new people in a context in which you can demonstrate your problem-solving and leadership skills.
Finally, if by chance you want someday to seek elected office, service on a board or commission may be the best first step you can take. If you want to serve your community as an elected official, it makes sense to try doing the work of government in an unelected role so you can learn about the practical challenges facing your state and local government and the needs of your community. Beyond that, many people running for office need to demonstrate their leadership skills and history and service. Leadership on a state or local board or commission can help you make that case.
In short, there is rightfully a lot of attention being paid to the historic number of women running for and winning elected offices, but it isn’t the only way to get involved with government. Women lawyers who aren’t interested in running for office (or not ready just yet) should consider service on a public board or commission because they are suited to the work, can make an impact on their communities, and can benefit themselves by building up their contacts and reputations.