I strongly believe that lawyers should lead the charge to provide civics education to the general public.
Here are 5 reasons why lawyers are perfect for this challenge.
We have a holistic understanding of government.
With our education, skills, and perspective, lawyers are perfect for the job of community-based civics education. We have a holistic understanding of the government as a system—we work with every branch of the government, understand how those branches interact with each other, and understand how the government interacts with individuals. Although other professions might offer a more in-depth look at one aspect of government or another, lawyers are trained to evaluate the structure, function, limitations, and application of government activity.
We know how to explain legal ideas to non-lawyers.
Lawyers are trained to distill complex legal ideas and language into manageable chunks of information for laypeople. We do this almost every day for our clients. We draft opinion letters, we explain rules and regulations so that our clients can stay in compliance, and we write employee handbooks and other guidance to limit our clients’ liability. Designing and teaching this course was such great practice in communicating complex legal ideas to a lay audience. We need to embrace an expository role and use our IRAC roots to illuminate complex ideas for the layperson.
Lawyers have an obligation use our knowledge for the good of society.
When I first taught the American Government Primer course, my license was on inactive status (I took a career break to be a stay-at-home mom for a few years). I couldn’t represent clients pro bono, but I still wanted to use my legal knowledge to serve my community.
As lawyers, we have a professional obligation to use our law licenses to improve our communities. As part of the Colorado Attorney Oath of Admission, all Colorado lawyers solemnly swear to use our “knowledge of the law for the betterment of society and the improvement of the legal system.” I think teaching people about our government is an excellent way to do good with our knowledge.
Lawyers are fluent in the language of our government.
I taught the American Government Primer course from a law perspective rather than a policy perspective. As much as possible, I used primary legal authority to illustrate concepts. I did that for a few reasons. First, primary legal authorities—the Constitution, cases, statutes, and regulations—are the language of our government. I wanted course participants to gain some familiarity with this language. I joke that cases are written by judges, who are lawyers, and lawyers aren’t exactly famous for speaking in plain English. It takes some exposure to legal writing to begin to understand it. Second, analysis of legal authority requires close, textual reading. This is a good skill for anyone to strengthen. Finally, community members don’t need a Westlaw subscription to access primary sources. They can look up laws and cases on Google.
It is good for business.
Teaching this course boosted my visibility as a lawyer in my community. I received several referrals or potential clients simply from teaching and getting my name and face out there. Teaching a civics education course might be a great way to gain exposure and make contact with potential clients. Of course, monetary considerations were not my primary motivation for teaching, but the boost in business was a pleasant and unexpected benefit.
In the next post, I’ll discuss the feedback I got from community members who took the American Government Primer course.