“I honestly believe that my legal background is essential to the policy work that I do. I think there’s such an overlap between law and policy, and I think it is really beneficial to be able to actually read a law and understand the wording and understand the intent and understand the legislative history and understand all the components.”

When most students enter law school, they more than likely anticipate careers in litigation, transactional work, criminal law, or some other traditional area of the practice of law.

But how many students consider that one day, they will actually be crafting the laws that lawyers and the public at large live by? Legislative work and other facets of policymaking are fields that are becoming more sought after as students couple their dreams of being lawyers with their desire to play a role in setting policy—whether arising out of administrative regulation, a legislative statute, or think tank guidance—that will benefit broad sectors of society. We will examine the role that lawyers play in impacting local, national, and international policymaking.

Different Practices, Similar Skills

According to the ABA’s website article on “Using Litigation Skills in the Public Policy Arena”, although the practice of law and policymaking are completely different areas of law, they require the development of similar skill sets of quality writing, advocacy, and networking. Correspondingly, policymaking can also be achieved in the course of litigation by way of submitting amicus briefs in support of one side or another in a policy-outcome dispute.

Just as various law firms and in-house general counsel managers seek attorneys who are trained in a specialized area of law, so too, private think tanks, Capitol Hill, local government, and lobbying firms look for certain types of specialists to help formulate policy in the policymaking realm. Whether it be in the field of education, the environment, social welfare, trade policies, defense, or any other field where public policy is being shaped, opportunities exist for lawyers wishing to use their practice skills for policy development.

Opportunities While Still A Student

One does not have to wait until receiving their law degree and license to contribute towards policymaking. Most law schools offer various fellowship programs whereby a student can work as a fellow for any number of public policy institutes. For example, New York University School of Law sponsors their Institute for Policy Integrity, Harvard Law School offers the Animal Law & Policy Academic Fellowship, and Temple University’s Law School, along with the Department of Public Health in the College of Health Professions offers a program in health policy through which a student can earn a combination J.D. and M.P.H. degree.

In addition, Congress offers numerous legal internships and law-related positions for law students in the DC area, as do non-profit organizations engaged in social as well as political policymaking.

From Law Practice to Policymaking

An attorney who started her career as a prosecutor representing victims of sex crimes decided that her skill set could better be applied to lobby for change in state and federal criminal laws pertaining to sex trafficking. She left her prosecutor’s position and became national director of a non-profit lobbying organization in order to play a crucial role in affecting criminal law policy change.

Attorneys also use their legal analysis skills to work for legislators, where they take on the crafting of new laws in support of policies that they believe in. Regulatory agencies recruit lawyers to draft the rules and regulations that govern so many of our interactions with administrative bureaucracies and compliance with agency requirements.

Lobbying and Consulting

Advocating for political, social, economic, and other causes can also be undertaken by working for a lobbying organization or trade association. Although one does not have to be a lawyer to work as a lobbyist—or as a policymaker in any field for that matter—lawyers are often preferred due to their training and expertise in analytical skills and in professional level writing.

Both for-profit consulting groups, as well as non-profit think tanks are regularly called upon to draft guidance for policymakers, and that guidance can, in fact, end up being the very policy that is ultimately adopted by both government and private foundations. But getting hired by some of the most well-known think tanks, such as Brookings Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute, for example, has become quite competitive, and those who gain entry to such august policymaking entities must come with considerable experience either in government, industry, or academia.

International Influence

The importance of a policymaker’s role is not just limited to local or national laws. Global organizations ranging from the World Economic Forum to the United Nations also employ lawyers to shape the policies that can help alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, and conflict around the globe.

And White House policy is also not limited to domestic impact. Whether addressing global water quality issues, nutrition, or global development, what comes out of White House policy has a tremendous impact internationally. As noted by an Institute for Legal Reform study, ‘the doors to the White House and federal agencies are eagerly held open for those representing America’s lawsuit industry.’

Executive Summary

The Issue

How does the practice of law intersect with public policymaking?

The Gravamen

Although it is not necessary to be a lawyer in order to work in policymaking, lawyers are in great demand in that sector due to the legal skill set they bring with them.

The Path Forward

As more law students search for ways to combine their legal training with their desire for social, economic, and environmental advocacy, policymaking offers a platform for satisfying both goals.


1. Start As a Student:

A plethora of fellowships and internships abound for those law students seeking a career in policymaking.

2. Career Shift:

Having already begun a legal career is not at all a detriment and can, in fact, be a major benefit for those seeking to move out of the traditional practice of law and into policymaking

3. Networking and Credentials:

Networking among think tanks, trade associations, lobbyists, and other advocacy forums is essential, and the opportunity to join in-demand organizations is greatly enhanced the more one builds their resume in a particular field of public advocacy.

4. Think Globally:

Beyond the domestic possibilities are the international forums and associations that advocate for change and development on a more global scale.

Further Reading:


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