Election 2012: What Every Lawyer Should Keep in Mind
Another election year is approaching, and the campaign cycle has already begun. As lawyers, we each occupy a unique position when it comes to political activity. Lawyers have traditionally been leaders in the political arena, a tradition of which we should all be proud to carry on. In today’s political climate, however, such political activism should be undertaken with an appropriate dose of preparation. Be it ethical considerations, client sensitivities, or the needs of our law firms or organizations to which we belong, we must all proceed with caution when dipping our toe in the political waters. Here are a few common situations in which you may find yourself:
Deciding whether to support a candidate or cause.
Do your homework first! As citizens, we enjoy the same rights and privileges to engage in political activity as every other American. However, as professionals and advocates, we must assess the impact public support may have on our ability to be effective. Fully vetting the candidate or the issue, including the opposition, are the first steps to making that assessment.
Conflicts with your clients.
Imagine you sign a petition, attend a rally, or support a candidate who opposes the loss of green spaces in your community. Imagine the phone call the next day from your client who seeks to convert a failing local golf course to a housing community — the type of project to which you have just expressed your opposition. While you are certainly entitled if not obliged to support and defend your political views, be sensitive to the interests of your clients.
Raising funds can put you and your firm in a precarious situation unless you clearly understand the fund-raising rules. Political fund-raising is rife with legal rules and restrictions at every level. Put your legal research skills to the test before you begin, and seek any necessary clarification from the Federal Elections Commission or the Florida Division of Elections. Both publish guides to political fundraising that might give you a good starting point: http://www.fec.gov/ans/answers.shtml and http://election.dos.state.fl.us/publications/publications.shtml
Your personal support of candidates versus your firm’s support of candidates.
Just as your political views can vary from the views of your client, so too can they vary from those of your firm management and/or your colleagues. Understand where that line is drawn and respect it.
Utilizing your firm’s resources.
Be aware that any firm resources you utilize in the pursuit of political contributions, including your work hours, may be considered an in-kind contribution by your firm to the campaign. Many do not realize that the use of firm e-mail, printing, postage and perhaps even the value of your billable time for campaign purposes can be considered contributions. Before you make this commitment, be sure that is what your firm intends.
Becoming the person whose calls and e-mails people start to avoid.
Many of us have been the recipients of dreaded campaign contribution requests. Few want to part with their money, but most feel compelled to oblige and are left muttering under their breath as they write the check. When you become the one asking, be careful who you ask and how often. And do not tread upon your client relationships.
Special issues for judicial campaigns.
Our legal system demands that our judges be impartial. Support for judicial candidates should promote impartiality. Follow the rules strictly, and keep your focus on civic service not personal gain.
Your candidate may not win.
Be cognizant going in of any potential negative ramifications to you, your firm and your clients should the opponent win. Avoid negative campaigning at all costs.
When you, as a lawyer, consider becoming a candidate.
Make sure you understand the ethical standards to which you will be held and the potential impact on your practice. Will you be permitted to vote on matters that affect your firm’s clients, or advocate on their behalf? What happens if you cannot? These questions should be asked and answered prior to filing your candidacy papers.
When colleagues in your firm consider becoming candidates.
Make sure you understand the restrictions that may be imposed on the firm, its lawyers and your clients. “My partner is a commissioner.” Sounds impressive, right? Perhaps not if that position prevents you from representing a client before the commission. Be aware of potential lobbying restrictions, cones of silence and other applicable rules.
Lawyers have a long and proud history of political service and activism. Election 2012 should be no exception. But as our election system has grown more complex, it is incumbent upon each of us to fully understand the rules and the potential ramifications of our actions. With preparation, though, we can each fulfill our duty to the law, our clients and our civic duty.
By Dawn M. Meyers
Berger Singerman LLP
350 E. Las Olas Boulevard
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
South Florida Legal Guide 2012 Edition