Lawyer to lawmaker

Political ‘lobbyists’ once had a dubious reputation in Ireland, but the government’s policy of engagement now gives law firms the chance to get involved in public affairs and influence legislation.

With ;the ;volume, complexity and scope of legislation growing, engagement with the policy-making and legislative processes is imperative for those seeking to influence the shape of that policy or the terms of the resultant legislation.

By requiring ministers and their officials to consult with stakeholders and the wider public in advance of the introduction of major policy initiatives, the government’s white paper on policy development and the legislative process heralded a new culture of openness and brought with it new opportunities for engagement.

This openness has manifested itself in a number of ways, including an abundance of consultation processes; an increasing tendency to publish bills in draft form; the preparation of regulatory impact analyses; and a tendency towards evidence-based legislation whereby parties affected by a piece of draft legislation are invited to make a presentation to a relevant parliamentary committee.

There is a growing recognition that legislation that emerges from a collaborative policy-making and legislative process is more effective legislation and is likely to command a greater level of compliance as a result.

Legal lobbyists

In Ireland, and indeed elsewhere, the task of lobbying has traditionally been seen as just another work-stream for public relations practitioners. However, as the opportunities for engagement with the policy-making and legislative processes have increased, there has been a corresponding need for the approach taken to that engagement to become far more sophisticated. Enter the role of the public affairs specialist.

As the focus of the work of a public affairs specialist is to a large degree concerned with influencing the shape of policy and its subsequent enactment in the form of legislation, it makes greater sense for that work to be carried out by someone with a legal qualification rather than a person with a background in PR.

Having a piece of draft legislation analysed and having amendments drafted by a PR expert makes about as much sense as having your next press release written by a lawyer. After all, an inherent part of the work of a lawyer is the task of advocating a cause on behalf of a client to another party – be that a judge or a lawyer for the other side. Also, as lawyers are clearly recognised as being best placed to advise on the interpretation and application of the law, equally it can be said that they are best placed and best equipped to assist clients who are seeking to influence the shape of a policy or bill that may become law.

As a practice area, public affairs involves much more than simply lobbying. In Ireland, recent corruption controversies have effectively led to a situation whereby the term ‘lobbyist’ is almost a bad word. However, the preference for the term ‘public affairs’ over that of ‘lobbying’ is not just about snobbery over linguistics. The term ‘public affairs’ describes much more accurately the range of services that public affairs specialists now provide. While lobbying and meeting with politicians is still a core service, not far behind is the task of analysing legislation and drafting amendments, or the preparation of submissions as part of a consultation process, as well as coalition building and campaigning at EU level.

When seeking to intervene on behalf of a client, the challenge is to ensure that that intervention in the policy development and legislative processes takes place at the earliest stage possible. A somewhat more difficult alternative than seeking to engage with a pre-existing process is for a client to stimulate and drive the development of its own policy initiative.

It should be made clear that the prospects of achieving some degree of success are pretty healthy. In one instance, through direct engagement with a government minister and her officials, the public affairs unit of Mason Hayes & Curran secured the insertion of a number of sections into a bill that met fully the requirements of the client. In another recent instance relating to a significant draft bill that had been published, the firm completed a detailed policy-based submission on behalf of a client that also flagged-up some fundamental legal issues. The submission was backed by a piece of substantive legal advice that the client was able to keep in reserve. The combined effect of the documents caused the relevant department to reconsider the direction of its draft legislation.

It is difficult to be critical of PR firms for deviating into the area of public affairs in order to try to fill a gap in the market. However, as the opportunities for influencing policy and shaping legislation have grown, so too has the need for the instruments used in feeding into the policy-making and regulatory processes to become more sophisticated. Superior service delivery will ultimately show public affairs to be a field of expertise that is a very good match for the skill sets of lawyers.

Dr Brian Hunt is head of public affairs at Mason Hayes & Curran