Co-Founder, Access Democracy and Campaign Director, All Voting is Local – The Leadership Conference Education Fund
I graduated from law school in 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama was running for President. There was an incredible wave of excitement and energy about his candidacy, which ultimately had a lot to do with the direction my career has gone in. I didn’t start law school with any intention of getting involved in campaigns; in fact, the idea that I could work on campaigns wasn’t even on my radar.
During the primaries, in the spring of my third year, I started volunteering for a group of lawyers who were running voter protection programs on behalf of the Obama campaign. Campaigns organize volunteer lawyers and law students to protect the vote — to ensure that voters can register and cast a ballot that counts, and that the process of voting is administered fairly and transparently. In that role, I did anything that needed doing: I served as a poll observer and on hotlines, helping voters and ensuring that state and federal law were followed; I recruited, assigned and trained other poll observers; I wrote legal memos analyzing states’ election laws.
When I graduated, I joined the 2008 Obama campaign full-time, as an advance staffer. Advance staff travel around the country “in advance” of candidates (in this case, presidential or vice presidential), their spouses, and surrogates, who are out on the campaign trail on the candidate’s behalf. You go to a city or town a few days before the scheduled event — a rally, a town hall meeting, a meet & greet — and help set it up, which can entail everything from choosing a location to finding a local musician to play the national anthem to working with local campaign staff to identify community leaders that the candidate should meet.
Advance was a terrific campaign job because it exposed me to so many different facets of a campaign’s operations. Most of these have had some ongoing, practical application (best practices for organizing volunteers; how to engage key community groups and leaders) — though I’m still looking for an opportunity to employ what I learned moving a high school marching band through a crowd of thousands. Advance is also an incredible way to see the country: you travel every few days, you’re always on the road, and you have the special privilege of seeing America at a critical juncture.
After the 2008 election, I took the bar, and then looked for work in D.C. I landed at the Democratic National Committee, where I spent almost three years as the deputy director and deputy general counsel for voter protection. In 2012, I moved to Florida to be the Obama campaign’s director of voter protection for that state, and I found myself back on a campaign in 2016, when I ran the national voter protection program for Hillary Clinton’s presidential race. To me, voter protection is the sweet spot for lawyers who care about civil rights and politics, because it sits at the intersection of all three areas: the intellectual exercise of traditional legal work, the meaning and legacy of civil rights advocacy, and the impact and fast-pace of politics.
Campaigns offer opportunities for a range of skillsets. Beyond advance work and voter protection, technologists and engineers can work on the digital tools and technologies used for voter registration and get-out-the-vote operations; data scientists manage targeting and analytics; communications staff polish the candidate’s message; and field staff (sometimes called organizers) bring that message to the community level. A recent law graduate looking to flex their policymaking muscles might be interested in joining the policy team, helping the candidate to craft positions on issues ranging from the economy to national security.
I was delighted to have the chance to contribute to guidance for students considering a job (or a career) in politics, since the way to get your foot in the door may not be clear. Politics as a profession is becoming more diverse. Opening up resume and training pipelines are key to continuing to increase the presence of women and people of color in the staff and leadership of campaigns. A few specific things I’ll share about getting into this line of work, from my own experience:
- Ask your professors, the OPIA staff, and alums for introductions and advice.
- Talk to as many people as you can, even if you’re unsure about where the conversation will lead. When I started looking for work after the 2008 election, I got coffee with literally any person who would talk to me about jobs in politics. Eventually, someone I knew introduced me to someone else, who introduced me to the person who hired me.
- You can jump on a campaign at almost any point in the cycle (I’ve hired staff as late as September). If you want to join a 2020 race in 2019 — do it! Getting in early has its benefits. But you can start later and still have an impact.
- People will almost certainly offer different perspectives on this, but my suggestion is to choose a campaign that you love and go with it, even if you’re uncertain if the candidate will go the distance. The candidate’s vision, and the team you work with, will be the what gets you up in the morning and keeps you grounded and happy during the late nights.
In terms of what can come after working on a campaign, lawyers move from the campaign world to jobs with the party committees (DNC, RNC, DSCC, etc.); into private practice (both big law and smaller or mid-sized firms focused on election law); to clerkships; to federal, state and local government; to think tanks; to civil rights and other nonpartisan organizations; and on to other campaigns. In my case, my current work running a voting rights project at a legacy civil rights organization draws very much from my experience on campaigns; it’s informed by the deeply entrenched voter suppression that I saw play out in real time across the country — which is something that should trouble all of us, no matter which candidate we prefer.
Getting on a campaign right as I graduated from law school changed the course of my professional life, and working in politics has been a deeply fulfilling and meaningful experience. I likewise think it’s vital to be transparent about the challenges that working on a campaign can bring. Everyone on a campaign misses important friend and family events; works very long hours; and consumes a steady diet of donuts and pizza. And depending on the place that you’re in in your life, the sacrifices — both personal and financial — can be significant. When I first started doing advance work for the Obama campaign in 2008, I had just graduated and it was easy for me to throw my stuff in a suitcase and get on the road. Fast forward eight years and I was married with a mortgage and a young child (and a dog). We decamped to a tiny apartment in Brooklyn when I took the job on the Clinton campaign.
Every campaign I’ve been on has been followed by some period of being out of a job, and there’s a lot of uncertainty built into this line of work. Reckoning with that discomfort, and making a plan for how it can be manageable — for you, given your unique circumstances — is an important part of ensuring that a campaign job, or a career in politics, will fit into the life you envision for yourself.