many lawyers from joining the legislature
By Melody Finnemore
Benjamin Franklin once stated that the first 50 years of one’s life should be spent shaping one’s career, building wealth and creating a family, and the remainder must be dedicated to repaying society through community service.
Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, took those words to heart.
'It made a real impression on me, and my wife and I decided as a couple that we would live by that philosophy,' he said.
When he turned 51 years old, Richardson left a successful law practice and joined the Central Point City Council. His stint as a city councilor quickly taught him that life looks a lot different from up on the dais. It also introduced him to a passion for public service that drew him to serve as a state legislator.
'I enjoy the mental opportunities because everything I do is new for me,' said Richardson. 'There are 35,000 people in Central Point who sent me to Salem to look out for their interests and do what’s best for the district.'
Richardson, whose career as a state legislator began last session, received a baptism by fire of sorts. The 2003 legislative session – the longest in the state’s history – came to a close after some 3,000 bills were addressed during a 227-day session. The bills involved a slew of complex issues, including proposed reforms to the state’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). Richardson, who served on the PERS reform committee, called it an extremely complicated learning experience.
'I spent my evenings looking through various aspects of the PERS issue and gaining an understanding of it so we could come to a resolution that would be best for everyone involved,' he said. 'My 25 years as a lawyer helped prepare me for the complex information that is involved. A lot of people who happen to get 51 percent of the vote in their district have no idea about the complexities of the detailed documents involved.'
His legal background also strengthened his ability to look at legislative issues from several vantage points, he said.
'When you analyze a case, you’re trying to analyze it from all perspectives and anticipate the challenges that will arise and the evidence you will need,' Richardson said.
Richardson, who regularly commutes the three hours from Salem to his family home in Central Point, admits the hours are long and the job is often thankless.
'My legal training prepared me for going into public service and it prepared me for the long hours, although it didn’t really prepare me for the politics of it,' he said. 'Everybody seems to want to bash lawyers and the perception is that the legislature is full of attorneys who want to make the laws more difficult to understand. That certainly is not the case in the Oregon Legislature, where there are too few legally trained members.'
Richardson is among a dwindling number of attorneys who have chosen to serve as legislators. With nearly a quarter of experienced legislators leaving before the next session starts, the decrease in the number of lawyers serving as lawmakers is particularly pronounced. The reasons are varied, but for many it comes down to time and money. Lawmakers must put in more hours - especially as the sessions grow longer and more combative – and the pay remains rather skimpy.
'You leave your law practice and your family so you can work long hours and get a bunch of grief for making really tough decisions, and all for about $1,300 a month,' said Max Williams, a former state representative who recently was appointed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski to serve as director of the state’s corrections department. 'For a lot of the wrong reasons the legislature is not respected, and I won’t say ‘the way it used to be’ because it never has been.'
Neil Bryant served as a state senator for eight years and chaired the state’s Judiciary Committee for six. Though he was forced out of the legislature by term limits, some relief accompanied the end of a demanding stretch of public service that took a toll professionally and personally, Bryant said.
'My family, and particularly my wife, was tired of the politics,' he said. 'It was really time consuming and mentally challenging. You have to have a tough skin because not only do you have a dozen chess matches going on, but there’s a contact football game going on as well.
'I was also leading a double life because I was still practicing law. I had to have understanding clients who didn’t leave, and while the firm was tolerant of my absence it definitely runs better when I’m here.'
Senate Democratic Leader Kate Brown, who juggles her career in Salem, a home in Portland and a family in eastern Oregon, said she joined the legislature in the early ’90s so she could utilize her legal skills to 'help make good laws and stop bad ones.'
However, the amount of time one must devote to legislative service has risen dramatically during the last several years, Brown said.
'I think it’s extremely difficult to keep a practice going and serve in the legislature. The legislature, for all intents and purposes, has become a full-time job,' she said.
Susan Grabe, director of public affairs and government relations for the Oregon State Bar, said these factors often prevent promising candidates from running.
'The fact that we do not have a professional legislature and they are not paid a living wage is the biggest reason for the decrease,' she said. 'If you don’t have a spouse to support you, you can’t serve. The $1,200 or so a month they receive is not a living wage.'
The time required to serve as a lawmaker and the accompanying lack of income are particularly limiting for young attorneys or those with billable-hour requirements, Grabe added.
'Lawyers give up a lot if they are facing student loans or trying to establish a practice. You can only afford to do it if you’re just starting out and aren’t saddled with loans or you’re at the end of your career,' she said.
'Sole practitioners really take a hit if they try to serve. Most lawyer-legislators who work for large firms find that are very understanding and accommodate them, but even a large firm can only accommodate so much.'
Many say the decrease in the number of lawyer-legislators will have a negative impact, as will the departure of such seasoned lawmakers as Williams, and Reps. Lane Shetterly, Rob Patridge and Randy Miller. Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed Shetterly to head the Department of Land Conservation and Development. Patridge quit to go back to work in the private sector, and Miller ended his 20-year legislative career to travel and spend time with his family.
'I think this will have a detrimental impact on the legislature,' said Sen. David Nelson, R-Pendleton, noting lawmakers with a legal background often are more likely to view pending legislation from a broader perspective. He referred to a workers’ compensation bill introduced last session by the Judiciary Committee that he said would have damaged the entire system had it not been defeated in the House of Representatives.
'Workers’ compensation was a very complex law that was negotiated in the 1990s before I ever joined the legislature and has served us well for many years,' Nelson said. The committee chair at the time, who is not a lawyer, 'was looking at it from a very narrow viewpoint. It basically would have changed the whole workers’ comp system, which has been a very successful system.
'I always thought that if Neil Bryant, who is an attorney, had been chair, we never would have had to listen to it,' Nelson added. 'When Neil Bryant was chair of the Judiciary Committee, there were some very thoughtful things to come out of it.'
Rep. Greg Macpherson, D-Lake Oswego, said he expects the decrease in the number of attorneys serving as lawmakers to make it much more difficult to get work done in the legislature, particularly when it comes to more complex issues such as the state’s budget.
'I think, too, there is a tendency for lawyer members to be among the more moderate voices in the legislature and tend less toward political extremes,' said Macpherson, a third generation legislator. 'Attorneys operate in a world where things are less black and white and in law school they had to argue both sides of a case, so they are accustomed to looking at an issue from all angles. There are certainly many non-lawyers who are able to do that, but it is a beneficial part of legal training.'
Williams said attorneys who serve as lawmakers help the public by interpreting laws so they are more understandable.
'Those words really need to make sense in order to have an impact in people’s lives,' he said.
The experience also benefits the attorney in many ways.
'I think lawyers do play and ought to play a vital role in the legislative process,' Williams said. 'It was the greatest addition to my legal education I could have asked for. If you truly want to expand your own legal repertoire, there is truly no better means of continuing education than serving in the legislature.'
Bryant, who lobbies and develops strategies for the Chancellor’s Office of the state Board of Higher Education, said he entertains the idea of rejoining the legislature someday. He enjoys being part of a democratic decision-making process and relishes the challenges that go along with the legislative process.
'It incorporated all of the skills I used as an attorney and more. I found it to be more difficult than practicing law, and I don’t think the law is easy,' he said. 'It’s an amazing process and I don’t think you can fully understand it until you’ve experienced it.'
Macpherson added that most people who serve in the legislature realize they will see few tangible rewards, and view their service as a way to give back to society for the success they have achieved.
'The reasons to serve are certainly not financial, so the motivation is really a commitment to public service,' he said. 'Our state functions as well as it does because many people have that commitment, and it will suffer if fewer people choose not to make it.'
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© Melody Finnemore