Lawyers working in the public policy arena often move back and forth between government and the private sector during their careers. They may spend the first part of their career in a law firm and then move to the nonprofit sector or to a government agency concerned with their area of practice, like the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Federal Communications Commission. Or they may begin their career in government and then move to the private sector.
Whether in the public or private sector, however, the essence of what policy lawyers do is similar. They think about the mechanisms for achieving policy goals and how to line up appropriate incentives and sanctions to implement these goals. Those representing the decisionmakers in government think about how to make the rules, what the best rules are, and how to motivate and align the agencies and institutions that will implement those rules. For both the lawmakers in the legislative branch and the rulemakers in the agencies of the executive branch, understanding the institutions that implement the legal rules is a critical element in fashioning rules that will be effective.
A public sector policy job could be in any branch of federal, state and local government and deal within a wide range of criminal or civil law matters. A policy lawyer may become an elected or appointed public official, a senior staffer on a congressional committee, or a senior staffer on any one of the government agencies whose mission it is to develop rules to implement broad legislative objectives, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Trade Commission or their state and local equivalents. Or she may work as a prosecutor, public defender, judge, or as an attorney for government agencies as diverse as the U.S. military and the Department of Labor.
Private sector policy lawyers represent clients who are or will be affected by the rules made by those in the government. They represent clients who want to influence federal or state legislation, or the rulemaking of a government agency. They craft policy positions, draft proposed rules or legislation, develop strategies on how to advocate their positions to those who make the rules, and negotiate alliances with others interested in the outcome. Their clients may be as diverse as companies in regulated industries, trade unions, nongovernmental organizations, or professional associations.
There is also a broad intersection between public policy work and the public interest sector. Policy lawyers and lawyers working for public interest groups may represent ideological organizations on the same or opposite sides of policy debates and litigation. A public agency and a public interest organization may also share a particular policy mission. They may both engage in advocacy and impact litigation focused on a policy concern, like clean air or affordable housing.
Whether you work on behalf of a government agency or represent a client suing the agency, it is important to know what and how the agency regulates, and how lawyers can most effectively interact with the agency. Since many areas of federal agency practice have both public interest and business law components, particularly if the lawyer is working for the regulator rather than the regulated, students interested in a specific area of business activity and its regulatory oversight should also consider courses in the relevant business law area.
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