Vol. 28, No. 10
CBA President's Message to Members
Lawyers and Politics
by Ann B. Mygatt
Editor’s Note: During this administrative year (July 1999-June 2000), this space will be used for material written by CBA President Bart Mendenhall, as well as other officers of the Colorado Bar Association. This month’s article was written by Ann B. Mygatt, Boulder, a sole practitioner and CBA Vice-President from the Third District.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
I’d been thinking all summer about sharing my story about individual activism, politics, and lawyers on this page. Bart’s president’s page last month on community service (September issue at page 13) has inspired me.
Back in the early ’70s, politics was an all-consuming passion for many of us: We had ideals, we had the Vietnam War, and Watergate. My community, Boulder, was bursting with revolutionary new ideas, and we stomped precincts, marched in protest, demonstrated against the war, and registered people to vote. We changed things! We really did.
Then, suddenly, like many of you, I got serious about my life. A divorce left me a single mom with a liberal arts degree and no skills. I went to law school, and politics took a back seat. I focused on my career 100 percent. Suddenly, twenty years flew by. As a litigator in private practice, most of the time as a sole practitioner, I was forced to learn how to do a number of things well.
I’m sure you have, too.
I learned that what makes you angry gives you a direct line to where your values lie, along with the energy it takes to act—whether it is seeing someone get a raw deal, a wrong that needs righting, a victim needing compensation, a child who needs protection, a spouse who has been abused, or someone treated unfairly. You know what I mean. This is what we do for a living. I remember someone describing a lawyer as one whose work starts with the word "no."
We’ve picked up some useful skills along the way. We learned:
- To voice our opinions, in a respectful but assertive manner;
- To stick up for what we believe in, while at the same time being able to hear the other side of an issue, and find middle ground;
- To lead, to take responsibility, and not be intimidated by authority;
- To question assumptions;
- To change course when a position becomes indefensible or a tactic just doesn’t work.
Because we lawyers are a community, we need to work cooperatively with others— partners, staff, expert witnesses, co-counsel. We know how to mobilize resources, to give the credit to others, motivate our teammates to do their best, to be assertive and take action, and to help others get what they want. We are trained to find creative ways to get things done. We have learned how to stand up for what we believe in.
In the throes of a busy practice, it’s all too easy to involve ourselves only with the cases on our desks, and avoid looking at the injustices lurking outside our offices that cry out for our participation. As lawyers, we have a unique heritage of taking action when we see injustice.
Late last year, I tried to build a house in Boulder County, and came up against a maze of land use regulations and policies seemingly designed to deliberately defeat an individual landowner from building a house. I quickly learned there were hundreds of other landowners in the county without the money, the resources, or the power to fight city hall. The issue was highly controversial. As a "tax and spend" liberal Democrat, I was stunned to learn that right here in my own county, individual rights were being trampled upon, and process was not very due. I was galvanized into action.
But I also was dismayed. After years of lulling myself into lazy political thinking, I suddenly found myself on the "wrong" side of the right issue. Here’s the inner dialogue I had with myself:
"I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life building a reputation for myself, developing a network of supportive friends and colleagues, all without taking any stands that were unpopular. As a lawyer in my community, I’ve gained influence, maturity, and respect from my peers. People look up to me. Do I want to blow it by getting involved in a controversial political issue?"
And then I asked myself: "Okay, so, do you want your epitaph to read: ‘She died with her influence intact’"?
Of course not. I want to make a difference.
I took the plunge, and it’s been the ride of my life. The results have been astonishing. Our fledgling organization lobbied (successfully) for much needed state legislation in the area of individual property rights. Locally, we defeated an unnecessarily restrictive building regulation, and we have been credited with bringing about sweeping reforms in the county land use process. As Bart said it would be: I have a whole bunch of new friends; have learned how to talk to people again; and lost a few old friends, but learned who are my true friends. No time to watch TV, my dog likes me better, and I feel good about myself! Notoriety can be fun. I’m working for a cause I believe in, with passion and energy, and helping others who feel the same.
You also can be a leader. You have a unique combination of intelligence, experience, and self-confidence. Most important, you know how to take responsibility and you have the talent to influence the course of events.
I bet you’re mad about some injustice. So, make a difference. Go do something.
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