How Politics Made Me a Better Attorney 

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RLG’s Shelly Perkins, JD, during her years with JC Watts

My interest in politics and law started at a young age.  My father was very active in Oklahoma politics.  I can remember going with him to campaign headquarters at a young age and volunteering for his candidates by folding letters to potential voters, helping to organize calling lists, building signs, making rally posters, and stuffing and stamping envelopes for campaign mailers.  (Now that I think of it, this may also be where my obsession with office supplies began!)  When I was in grade school and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would tell them I wanted to be an attorney and the first female President.  (Some people say I have high expectations.)

During college, I was active in political groups on campus, volunteered for multiple campaigns, and passionately shared and defended my beliefs and the opinions of those I supported. I interned at the Congressional Office for J.C. Watts, Jr. in Norman, and my hard work and dedication earned me a position as his Scheduler in 2006. I worked in various capacities in J.C.’s congressional and campaign offices for over six years, including Scheduler, Office Manager, and Finance Director. In 2002, I ran Jeff Cloud’s statewide campaign for Corporation Commissioner and served as his Administrative Aide upon his election.  While visiting the Tulsa Office of the Corporation Commission in April 2003, I mentioned to Jeff that I had always wanted to be an attorney.  At this time, I had been married for almost 10 years and had a toddler at home.  We discussed law school on our drive back from Tulsa that day, and Commissioner Cloud drove straight to Oklahoma City University School of Law, his alma mater, and we picked up an admission application. The application was due in May. I took the LSAT in June. I was accepted in July and started law school in August. 

While in law school, I served as Executive Director for a nonprofit organization, worked at a political consulting firm managing campaigns for local, state and federal candidates, and started a political consulting firm where I managed and raised money for numerous state and federal campaigns. After extending my graduation date by a semester because I got pregnant with my second child, I graduated law school in December 2007.  (At least I accomplished one of my goals!)

Our relationships and experiences impact who we are and influence what we become.  Although I am no longer actively involved in politics, I believe the relationships and experiences I had while working in and running campaigns have made me a better attorney, specifically, because I developed the following five attributes:

  • Meeting Deadlines. During a campaign, there are filing and reporting deadlines that must be met.  Signs must be ordered so your candidate is ready for the upcoming parades and has them before voting day. Not meeting deadlines can damage your candidates image, which could cause them to lose voters and the election. In the legal profession, failure to timely respond to a statutory deadline for state agency determination involving wages or unemployment compensation could forever bar my client from appealing their decision and have a substantial financial impact on the client’s business for years to come.  Deadlines matter, take priority, and must be met.
  • Getting Things Done. I’ve often described myself as the person you give things to so that they get done. Politics taught me that every day there are critical things that must be done and, even if they didn’t get done today, or they don’t get done tomorrow, they eventually must get done. It is no different at a law firm. I put the task on a list and keep working at it. Oftentimes, the ability to get things done depends on whether you effectively prioritize projects and can selectively multi-task. We all have had work stack up on us, which makes it harder. I’ve learned over the years to manage that well and not having that pressure is better than not playing catch up or leaving things behind. I’d rather stay an hour later than have the thought that I forgot to do this or that.
  • Handling Pressure.  Things aren’t routine. Being in a campaign develops the ability to handle pressure because there are many different sizes of tasks to complete: deadlines, articles, debates, appearances, TV ads, and the list goes on.  Like the famous TV series, West Wing, always something new to cause the character pressure. Politics taught me how to handle these types of situations. Keep your cool.
  • Dedication and Commitment.  In politics, you developed the ability to give your whole self to the team.  You are so dedicated and committed to getting your candidate elected, that everything you do supports accomplishing that goal.  You have a heightened development of a sense of commitment to who you are serving.  Anyone who’s ever been involved in an election campaign knows what I’m talking about. I have a similar dedication and commitment to my clients. They trust me to represent their best interests at all times, so I want to be an advocate for them and pour everything I have into their cause. 
  • Appreciation for Support Staff.  In both politics and law, there are people you rely on to help you be successful. You need volunteers to support your candidate at a parade or put signs up at polling places the night before an election so that your candidate can project a “winning image”.  You need your legal assistant to draft and proof-read documents and docket deadlines. However, you need to give them ownership over the project and give them freedom to correct you or they won’t do their best work and they won’t grow. You want them to catch what you missed in that 40-page employee handbook you just revised and remind you in advance of hearing dates so that you can plan time to prepare the filings. If you build a good support team and use and treat them the right way, you get more done for your clients.

While it isn’t always easy to change professions, you can definitely take what you’ve learned and experienced from your previous positions and apply it to your new position, even if they don’t initially seem to have anything in common.