By Sarah Coleman
After several years of private practice, I decided to take a career break to be a stay-at-home parent. For two years, I was a Colorado attorney on inactive status. I am now back on active status, but I want to share how I used my legal training and experience during that time and leveraged those activities when I decided to reenter active practice.
There is a large segment of Colorado attorneys on inactive status, and I believe inactive attorneys are a vastly underutilized resource. According to the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel 2016 Annual Report, 34.9 percent of registered attorneys in Colorado were inactive, which amounts to 14,017 inactive attorneys. Women account for almost 36.8 percent of registered attorneys in Colorado. Interestingly, women account for the same percent of inactive attorneys in Colorado.
Shortly after going on inactive status, I spoke with someone from the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel and mentioned my status change. After congratulating me on this choice, this person said that the statistics on inactive attorneys reentering the legal profession were rather “grim.” Although my career break was open-ended, I knew that it was not indefinite and that, at some point, I would feel the itch to return to practicing law. During my career break, I wanted to be engaged in my community and use the skills that I gained through education and experience. I also knew that I didn’t want a gaping hole on my resume and that I needed to keep using my skills for when it was time to reenter the law world. To that end, I sought out experiences and activities where my law license would be a benefit. I would like to briefly share some of these experiences.
First, I designed and taught a four-week course on American government, which I offered for free through my local libraries. The course covered federalism, Congress, the President and administrative agencies, the judicial branch, due process, fundamental rights and equal protection. It was great fun to dust off my 1L Con Law book and review these legal principles. The turnout for the course was great and I met so many people who were interested in learning more about their government. The library asked me to teach the course again and I am scheduled to do so in early 2018.
From a practical perspective, researching and teaching this course was helpful to my career development in two ways. Teaching this course boosted my visibility as an attorney within my community. I’ve received several referrals or potential clients simply from teaching and getting my name and face out there. For someone transitioning from inactive to active status, teaching a civics education course might be a great way to gain exposure and make contact with potential clients. It was also a great exercise in communicating complex legal ideas to a lay audience, something that attorneys do every day.
Second, I joined a government commission. I was appointed as an alternate commissioner to my county’s planning commission. In my practice, I sometimes dealt with land use, land conservation or public lands. I have a personal passion for public lands, so serving on the planning commission was an excellent way to combine my personal and professional interests.
The planning commission holds quasi-judicial proceeding, and commissioners are akin to a judge in a judicial proceeding. Commissioners investigate facts, consider and weigh evidence, apply the land use code, and make decisions or recommendations on specific projects. This experience gave me a renewed appreciation for the role of the neutral arbiter in our system of justice. Sitting “on the other side of the table” as a decision maker, rather than advocate, was interesting and gave me a new perspective on effective advocacy.
Third, I worked with Northwest Colorado Legal Services to update resources available to the public. Although I couldn’t provide pro bono representation while on inactive status, I asked if Legal Services could use the skills of an inactive attorney. Legal Services responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” Legal Services asked me to do a modest amount of legal research and review and update some handouts and frequently asked questions forms that they provide to the public on various topics, such as landlord-tenant issues. This was a good way to engage my research skills while on inactive status. Importantly to me, it was a way to “use my knowledge of the law for the betterment of society and the improvement of the legal system,” as required by the Colorado Attorney Oath of Admission.
Fourth, I served on the board of directors of a local non-profit organization dedicated to improving water quality. In law school, I participated in an environmental law student clinic and many of my internships were focused on environmental law. As a board member, I got to see how the laws and programs I studied as a law student were implemented on the ground.
Fifth, I volunteered to write on behalf of organizations and causes that I care about. I wrote blog posts, op-eds, and letters to the editor. This was a great win-win for the organizations and myself. Busy or understaffed organizations were happy to have someone take on these tasks. I was able to dust off my persuasive writing skills. In addition, writing for public consumption helped get my name out to my community and boost my visibility.
Clearly, one does not need to be an inactive attorney, or even an attorney, to engage in most of these activities. But, I found that many people and groups were happy to make use of someone with legal experience, even if I could not provide legal advice. Truthfully, I gained as much as I gave, and find myself reflecting on these experiences and how they helped me grow as a practicing attorney.
Sarah Coleman is the owner of Coleman Law, which offers on-demand freelance legal services to Colorado attorneys in the form of litigation support and legal research and writing services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.