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On a Career in Government

Monday, Oct 17, 2011

CA Treasurer Bill Lockyer Speaks to Students

by Darren Schenck
photos by Maria Iacobo

USC Law students considering a career in government took advantage of the opportunity on Oct. 12 to hear from a man who wears the label “career politician” as a badge of honor. California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who served 25 years in the California Legislature and two terms as California Attorney General before being elected to his current office, spoke with students in Room 1 of the law school about his long and varied career in government. USC Law’s Government Law Organization (GLO) sponsored the event.

Calif. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer
 Calif. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer

“I was the first one in my family to go to college. My mom wanted me to be Perry Mason, and before she died she made me promise to go to law school,” Lockyer said. “It was the ’60s, so I didn’t do any of that. That was part of my rebellion.”

A graduate of UC Berkeley, Lockyer ran for the California State Assembly in a special election in 1973, after the legislator he was working for was killed in an accident. He said he found the work interesting, but eventually he reflected on the promise he had made to his mother.

“When you’re in the legislature, I found you can either go to law school at night or get drunk every night. Subsequently I found out you can kind of do both,” he said, drawing laughter from dozens of students.

Lockyer enrolled at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and earned his J.D. over the course of seven years while serving in the Assembly and later the California State Senate. He took a year off from law school when he ran for the Senate, in which he eventually served as Senate President pro Tempore.

Although Lockyer recalled many good experiences in state government, particularly his leadership in passing balanced state budgets each year, he also lamented the dearth of lawyers elected to the state legislature.

“There was a time when the majority of legislators were lawyers,” he said. “There are two committees in particular where you want people with legal training, and we don’t have enough lawyers in the legislature to fill those committees.”

Bill LockyerLockyer attributed lawyers’ effectiveness as legislators to their issue-spotting skills, which are particularly valuable when evaluating public policy.

“Lawyers generally are trained more than other professionals to be able to do that,” Lockyer said. “Attorneys also generally wind up in leadership positions in the legislature due to their negotiating skills.”

Lockyer said the decline in the number of attorneys in statewide elective office is largely due to distaste for "that form of public combat" in campaigning and to the financial hardship public sector work would engender. He noted that he has extended offers to a number of “wonderfully qualified” attorneys who demur because loan obligations prevent them from taking a significant pay cut.

Regarding career advice, Lockyer threw up his hands and told the students that there is no direct path to government work.

“I don’t know how you find jobs in this domain,” he said. “You just keep working at it. It’s like if you want to be an actor: you wait tables for 10 years and then you get a part.”

Lockyer reflected on the glacial pace of change that you can effect while working in government, saying that our system of government essentially is designed “not to work.

“The founders were so profoundly mistrustful of human nature, we wind up with three branches, three levels, two houses, checks and balances, all stuff essentially meant not to have [government] do anything,” he said.

But he closed on a positive note, citing the personally rewarding nature of public service work.

“One of the really gratifying consequences of public lawyering, policy work in the public domain or elective office, is that the work is about more than how many BMWs you own,” he said. “It really is a gratifying career.”

Lockyer with Doug Hewlett and Blanca Hernandez
Lockyer with GLO's Doug Hewlett '13 and
Blanca Hernandez '13

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