Before I start, I’ll admit what you probably guessed from the subheading—yes, I’m a government affairs attorney and I’m writing this piece, in part, as a plug for my profession. Why’s that? Well, in the pantheon of lawyers, we government affairs folks are often overlooked.
Litigators garner attention from their Supreme Court cases, high profile trials, and shows like Law and Order. Transactional attorneys turn heads with their multimillion-dollar deals that send shockwaves throughout the economy. Intellectual property attorneys, despite being mired in often-esoteric subject matter, somehow still make headlines. And let’s not forget the newest legal newsmakers—cybersecurity attorneys.
Meanwhile, we government affairs lawyers toil in obscurity, separated from the glory bestowed upon our more ballyhooed peers.
And yet, I would argue that government affairs attorneys deserve at least equal recognition. Our performance and value-add may be harder to quantify than that of other lawyers, but, for businesses, our contributions are no less impactful, particularly for highly regulated industries.
How so? Well, for starters, it might be helpful to define what government affairs is.
What is government affairs?
Government affairs (or government relations) is the process by which businesses educate themselves about governmental developments and participate in lawmaking. It typically involves tracking new laws that are proposed or enacted, in addition to businesses using their voice to support or oppose proposed laws.
Let’s say, for example, that a state legislator proposes a law that would ban Product X, a profitable product made by Company A. Government affairs attorneys would first alert business leaders at Company A about the proposed law. Then, government affairs attorneys would likely try to convince state legislators not to support the proposed law, since banning Product X would harm Company A.
Persuaded by government affairs attorneys representing Company A, a majority of legislators decide to vote against the proposed law, resulting in its defeat. The defeat of the law ultimately allows Company A to continue to profit from the sale of Product X. Company A’s executives celebrate the win, while its government affairs attorneys return to the shadows of obscurity.
This simple example is just one illustration of a scenario involving government affairs attorneys, but the main takeaway should be clear: by influencing lawmaking, government affairs attorneys make it easier for businesses to do business.
A strong government affairs team can help a business fight off unfavorable laws, encourage the passage of favorable laws, and facilitate smooth, business-friendly interactions with regulators. This results in cost savings, easier product or service rollouts, and less burdensome regulation.
Building a Strong Government Affairs Team
By now, I hope that even skeptics can better appreciate the importance of the government affairs function. As with other legal specialties, however, businesses seeking to build a strong government affairs team should do so thoughtfully. This means keeping the following considerations in mind:
- Relationships Matter Most
Brains or technical ability alone can’t yield success in government affairs. Relationships are extremely important. Therefore, strong government affairs teams typically boast at least one person who has long-standing, positive relationships with people in government. Whether it’s a former legislative aid or veteran of a government agency, people who have ties to government entities can use those relationships to help influence lawmaking outcomes in your business’s favor.
2. Strong, Versatile Communication Ability is Key
A large part of the government affairs function involves communicating with non-lawyers. So it’s important to build a team that consists of people who can communicate confidently, clearly, and effectively with people from a variety of non-legal backgrounds. Additionally, this means having people who can explain complicated subject matter in simple, concise, and compelling terms. After all, along with a need to inform, the government affairs function also entails a need to persuade—whether the audience is government officials or C-suite executives.
3. Creativity and Persistence Are Essential Qualities
Nudging large government institutions in a particular direction is difficult work, and the “NOs” roll in far more often than the “YESes.” A successful government affairs attorney, therefore, must possess creativity and dogged persistence that will lead him or her to pursue multiple routes to achieve the desired outcome, and not give up easily. A myopic, passive, or invariably deferential disposition won’t cut it.
Stephen L. Ball is Government Affairs Counsel for CSAA Insurance Group. A proud Wolverine, Stephen has a B.A. in Political Science and a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Michigan. He also has a J.D. from Harvard Law School. For more information about Stephen, see his LinkedIn page.