by Bobby Larsen
I spent the first weekend of November in Denver for a Leaders From Law workshop led by Georgetown Law Professor Heidi Li Feldman. Leaders From Law is a startup organization created by Professor Feldman in the aftermath of the 2016 election that describes itself as “a co-curricular program aimed specifically at law students and young attorneys with interest in running for elected office, especially at the state and local level.”
Leaders From Law is sponsored by the American Constitution Society, a national legal organization that I’m in. While many organizations sprang up in the aftermath of the 2016 election with the goal of preparing people to run for office, Professor Feldman believed there was room for an organization focused specifically on law students and young lawyers. Its mission statement notes that while many law students have an interest in politics, law schools rarely provide information on how to run and win.
I was fortunate to have a great group of fellow law students and recent graduates in the workshop I attended. Despite there being only eight of us, there was significant diversity in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and experience. One man had worked in a nuclear power plant for a time before law school. Another man had been a professional snowboarder. One woman, a mother of three, has spent over 20 years in education, currently working as an education consultant. At least two participants had served in the military.
What brought us together was a sincere desire to use our law degrees to serve. No one in the room struck me as someone who just wanted power. Everyone cared about the communities they wanted to run in. One man spoke passionately about infrastructure problems and corruption in his small Montana hometown. One woman discovered during the workshop that her county currently has a vacancy for the part-time position of county surveyor. Coincidentally, she had substantial surveying experience from her time in the military. Professor Feldman encouraged her to try to become the county surveyor now.
As someone who has had an interest in politics since I was eleven, it was nice to get to talk about the details of what that might look like. When I shared that I sometimes struggled on whether to run in Papillion or Omaha, Professor Feldman asked if I liked Papillion, the Omaha suburb I’ve lived in for my entire life. “I love it,” I replied, earnestly. Professor Feldman said that was all she needed to know about where I should run...rarely had she seen someone light up so much when asked how they felt about their hometown.
We went over practical aspects of running for office such as familiarizing ourselves with budgets, practicing asking for campaign donations and learning skills to be confident and competent on the campaign trail. We read excerpts from the memoirs of Stacey Abrams, Wendy Davis, and Walter Mondale to gain a sense of what drove them to achieve everything they have so far. Mondale became Minnesota Attorney General at a time when the job was not very powerful and turned the office into a consumer protection watchdog. Abrams used her background as a tax lawyer to help prevent a poorly-written tax law from passing in Georgia. Davis presented herself as the definition of a public servant; trying to get the little things done for her constituents.
While I am undecided on when I would want to run for office, other than that it will be after law school and only when I feel adequately qualified and prepared for what the position would require, Professor Feldman helped us all make a list of offices we could consider.
I began to seriously consider running for the Papillion-La Vista Community School Board at some point in the next decade. I attended the schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade and, of course, care deeply about Papillion and making sure its schools remain high-quality. As the district grows rapidly, we have had to grapple with altering boundaries to make sure elementary schools stay similarly-sized. It takes fiscal responsibility to make sure the district doesn’t over-build and can focus its resources on providing a quality education for all students. That means that students in special education programs are given the attention they need day in and day out and are equipped for life after high school. That means that high-ability learners are given enrichment opportunities. That means that lower-income students are provided with programs to become financially stable after high school. That means that students of color feel welcome and that students aren’t taught a romanticized version of history. That means that fine arts are properly funded. That means that good teachers are hired and kept.
The school district has pondered expanding its boundaries, which might set up a dispute with a neighboring district. This is just one example of when having someone on the board with a legal education could be beneficial. The workshop showed me that it’s time to go from dreaming about one day running for office to beginning to seriously look at the details of the issues local governmental bodies grapple with.
Leaders From Law and Professor Feldman served to instill us with confidence that we could become elected leaders in our communities. In the fight for equality and social justice, it is important to have at least a few lawyers involved. While my focus for now will be on school and finding a full-time career once I graduate and pass the bar, it remains a goal to one day give back to the community that has given so much to me. The best night of the year, Papillion’s Winter Wonderland festival, is coming up, and I always run into the mayor and he always asks me if I’m “in the state legislature yet.” While I’ll still have to tell him no, at least this year I’ll be able to tell him I’m getting slightly closer to being ready to run for something.
Bobby Larsen is a second-year student at the University of Nebraska College of Law and a contributing writer for JDs Advancing Justice. Bobby also serves as Vice President of the Equal Justice Society, Community Legal Education Project, and American Constitution Society and as a member of the Student-Faculty Honor Committee, Student Faculty Committee and Pro Bono Committee. He is the college's Equal Justice Works Student Representative and an ex officio member of the Nebraska State Bar Association's Legal Services Committee.