Lawyer-lawmakers dwindle in Iowa legislature

BY JENNY EARL | OCTOBER 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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The number of lawyers serving in the Iowa legislature is lower than ever.

According to Iowa Lawyer magazine, only 15 of the 100 lawmakers in the Iowa House are lawyers, and only one of the state's 50 senators is a lawyer.

Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, a 2003 University of Iowa College of Law graduate, said at a forum on campus Thursday he's surprised at the small percentage of lawyers in the Legislature.

"There are a lot of farmers or workers — being able to relate to people who come from a lot of different backgrounds helps us to relate to legislators who have different backgrounds," Olsen told a group of about 60.

Some of the six lawyer-lawmakers at Thursday's event said they didn't plan on using their law degrees to make laws.

"Being one who believes there's never a right time to run, you either do it or you don't — I decided to jump in," said Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, the speaker of the House.

Because Iowa has a part-time Legislature — with sessions lasting between four and eight months — these legislators' legal degrees allow them to carry on with other legal work.

Still, balancing work at the Statehouse with legal practice back home is challenging.

"The whole part-time legislator thing is a lie … Every one of us puts in quite a bit of time — more than the average legislator," Paulsen said.

Still, the lawmakers said their indepth knowledge about the law helps them when working on bills.

"Having a legal background is a huge benefit," said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton.

Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Law Eric Andersen said lawyers are well-fit for positions in the Legislature.

"Having an understanding of how the law works generally would be very valuable to any legislator," he said. "Legal training gives them a sense of how to act, and they know what's applied in the courts and how it works in the real world."

Rep. Nate Willems, D-Lisbon, who is now in his second term in the Iowa House, told law students Thursday not to let their age stop them from doing what they want to do. When he first ran for the House, he was in his late 20s and went campaigning door-to-door.

"I've had people laugh at me: 'You're in high school, right?' " he said. "People love to tell you how young you look, but when I start mentioning that I'm a lawyer, you could see in their head the wheels turning."

Though each of the College of Law alumni said they have different priorities, they also have a lot in common.

"We're Iowans," Rep. Kurt Swaim, D-Bloomfield. "We went to the same schools, churches, synagogues, same law school. We are at heart Iowans, and because of that, we share some general concepts."

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