PRESIDENT'S PERSPECTIVE: Your Profession Needs You

I think we can all agree that our legal system is under attack. In the last year, we have seen the end (very temporarily, we hope) of our merit selection system for electing judges and the dismantling of our court-based workers’ compensation system. We also are facing attacks on our jury system through continuing efforts at tort “reform.” While we have won some of the battles as our profession has been attacked, it would be easy to feel as though we have lost the war. I submit to you that the war is not over, and it is time for someone to do something about these attacks. That someone is you!

For many years, your association has focused about 10 percent of your dues on advocating for our judicial system and the profession in the legislature, using the services of our staff and professional lobbyists; however, in these times of ever-increasing attacks on our legal system, the efforts of paid lobbyists are not enough. Our legislators must hear from each of us!

At our recent convention, a meeting was convened to discuss a strategy for encouraging more lawyers to run for office, especially given that the number of lawyers in our state legislature is at an all-time low. There was also discussion regarding how our profession could effectively advocate in the legislature on issues that we face. A number of our lawyer-legislators took time out of their busy schedules to attend this meeting. The insights that we gained from them surprised me, and I think they will you, too.

Our legislators are not actually hearing from very many members of our profession. On the other hand, they are hearing from a large number of doctors, dentists, and business owners. In light of this information, it is time that we ask ourselves some important questions: (1) Do we know which legislators actually represent us? (2) Have we attempted to establish a relationship with our legislators? (3) Have we worked in and/or contributed to the campaigns of those running for office who support our legal system? (4) Have our local bar associations invited our legislators to speak at a meeting? (5) When we have events, do we recognize our legislators when we recognize our judges? (6) Have we offered to lend a hand to our lawyer-legislators during session when they are required to be away from their office?

You may have answered “no” to most of the questions above. Many of us have assumed that because we are members of a profession made up of advocates, a large number of our members are already effectively advocating for our profession. Many of us also assume that our opinions will not actually matter to our legislators. The truth is that our legislators want to hear from each of us — not because we are lawyers or bar association leaders, but because we are voters! With that said, because we are also lawyers, we are in a unique position to provide assistance to our legislators through sharing our legal insights regarding the potential effect that a proposed bill would have and any legal issues we see with the way the bill is actually drafted. Even our lawyer-legislators are not experts in every area of the law, so your insights as an expert in a particular field can be invaluable.

I know you are thinking that this article is ill-timed, as we are months away from the next legislative session; however, there could be no better time for you to be reading this article. Your legislators actually need to hear from you right now for two very important reasons. The first is that they have more time to sit down with you or come to speak at your association’s meeting because they are not in session. The second is that you will be focusing on building a relationship with them, rather than lobbying them to take a particular position on pending legislation. By working to build relationships with your legislators now, you are laying the groundwork that will place you in a position to effectively advocate when the next legislative session begins.

Despite the information above, you may still be a little unsure about taking that first step in developing relationships with your legislators. You can rest easy as your association is here to help. A new legislative effort this year will focus on developing a grass-roots network of members to advocate for our justice system. To that end, we have hired a public policy coordinator to work with members on this very issue, along with many others.  

As we all know, life is about relationships, and those who influence us the most are those with whom we have built relationships of trust and respect. Your legislators are no different from the rest of us, so we cannot expect to be in a position to influence them on behalf of our profession if they do not know us, or only hear from us when our hands are out. The time is now for our twelve thousand members to take the steps necessary to become a powerful voice for our profession. Remember, Together We Make a Difference!

Cindy Wyrick TBA President CINDY WYRICK practices law with Ogle, Gass & Richardson PC in Sevierville.