Young lawyers have a strong desire to give back. We are quick to donate to charitable causes, and many of us take on pro bono cases. But over the years there has been a steady decline in the number of attorneys, and in particular young attorneys, serving on local boards and as government officials. The nature of modern practice is often blamed for driving this trend, but it is also true that finding and securing these positions is not something most young attorneys know how to do.

As someone who has worked in government affairs for the past decade, and been involved with politics since I was old enough to walk in a parade, this is a topic I care a lot about. It also dovetails with my overarching goal for my year as chair of the YLD — getting young lawyers plugged into our profession. So, I thought I would share some thoughts on this topic and invite anyone who has questions about getting involved in public life or the State Bar Association to reach out.

All Politics Is Local

New Jersey boasts an astounding 565 municipalities, all of which have various councils, boards, and commissions that carry out the day-to-day work of running our government. Getting hired as counsel is a highly competitive process, but getting elected or appointed to serve as a public official is often quite simple.

I currently serve as Secretary of the Flemington Historic Preservation Commission because I needed approval to put a new roof on my house. I was not thrilled with the process, so when the chair mentioned there were open seats on the commission, I applied. I had an interview with the commission, did a phone call with the mayor, and that was that. My reappointment by a mayor of the opposite party was just as straightforward.

My experience is not unique. Getting involved with local government is often as simple as raising your hand to volunteer even if there is a veneer of politics coating the process. All you really need is a willingness to serve, and interest in the topic at hand. Being affiliated with the same political party as the mayor can be helpful, but it is not a must.

Don’t know where to start? Go online. Most municipalities have a list of boards and commissions on their website with vacancies noted. Others provide the list of board and commission chairs and you will need to reach out and see if there are vacancies.

Once you get your foot in the door, it is likely you will get asked to serve on other boards, or even recruited to run for office.

Serving at the State Level

If you have expertise in a particular area, serving on a state board or commission may be a better fit for you. The governor appoints hundreds of people to governing bodies as varied as the Interior Design Examination and Evaluation Committee and the Shellfisheries Council.

To serve in some roles you must have a particular credential, but many have a slot for a general member of the public. Positions may also be allocated by party, county, or region, so do your homework to make sure you qualify before you spend time applying.

Some of these roles require senate confirmation, but many do not. Nevertheless, it does not hurt to reach out to your state legislators and let them know you are interested in a particular board or commission. They can help you get information about the role and may be willing to put in a good word for you with the governor’s staff.

Political involvement and affiliation play a larger role at the state level, but a willingness to serve is still the most important criteria. And once again, service on one board or commission will often draw the attention of policymakers and politicos who have other slots to fill.

Non-Political, Non-Profit Boards

If you prefer to stay away from politics completely, there are still plenty of ways you can serve your community. Local non-profits are frequently looking for new board members.

Many of them are eager to have a lawyer on their board, which can open doors for you, but it is also something to be wary of. Don’t get yourself in a position where you are giving out free legal advice or putting yourself at risk of a malpractice claim.

It is also important to recognize that many non-profits expect their board members to contribute financially or lead fundraising efforts. If this is not something you are comfortable with, make sure you ask about the organization’s expectations before committing to serve.

Find Your Seat at the Table

If you have a desire to serve, don’t hesitate to put yourself out there. The public needs hard-working problem solvers to address the many challenges facing society. Attorneys can and should fill those roles.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of Dictum, the newsletter of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division.

Photo of Emily Kelchen Emily Kelchen

Emily S. Kelchen founded Kelchen Consulting after realizing the free time she spent building websites and experimenting with social media-driven marketing and advocacy was much more fun than working as a traditional lobbyist. Emily is active in both the New Jersey and Wisconsin…

Emily S. Kelchen founded Kelchen Consulting after realizing the free time she spent building websites and experimenting with social media-driven marketing and advocacy was much more fun than working as a traditional lobbyist. Emily is active in both the New Jersey and Wisconsin state bar associations, and is a member of the American Bar Association. She is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s communications committee and on the board of its Nonresident Lawyers Division. Emily graduated from Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, with a degree in political science, and earned her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison, WI. She currently resides in Flemington, NJ, and therefore relishes any opportunity to talk about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial.