As part of the most recent installment on our PERA Member Spotlight series, we sat down with Jennifer M. Anderson, J.D., director of legislative affairs for the Colorado Attorney General's Office, to understand a bit more about what the day-to-day of her job entails.
Prior to joining the Attorney General’s Office in 2014, Jennifer served as a natural resources associate at Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie in Albuquerque, New Mexico. From there, she went on to become the director of alcohol and gaming at the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department. Jennifer made the move to Denver when she was recruited as a natural resources attorney at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP.
Jennifer has an undergraduate degree from the University of Denver, and graduated magna cum laude from the University of New Mexico School of Law. She is licensed to practice law in both Colorado and New Mexico.
Q: What does a normal day look like for you?
A: It depends on the time of year. During the legislative session, my day starts with me waking up and immediately checking my phone to see what emails I received, what bills have been calendared. I feel like I’m constantly checking to see what’s on the schedule at the legislature. I often go directly to the Capitol to ensure I get there in time to catch the legislators before they go on the floor to discuss various bills that we’re trying to amend, bills that we think might be unconstitutional, or bills that we think are just bad (or good) policy. I also work on bills that are part of the Attorney General’s legislative agenda, meaning they originated in our office, and we’re asking legislators to carry them. No two days ever look the same—which keeps me on my toes.
Q: What does a normal day look like when you’re not in session?
A: I start my day by going into the office and reading the news. There is constantly press relating to various issues with different state agencies or local governments that you know are going to be hot topics with legislators. I give legislative updates to numerous groups of people that the Attorney General is involved with (for example, she chairs the Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, as well as the Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force ). I put on an annual CLE for the lawyers in my office to review all of the legislation that passed during the prior session. I also sit on task forces on behalf of my department, so I attend those meetings as well.
I begin putting together our agenda for the following year in the summer of the preceding year. It takes more time than anyone might expect to vet legislation. I’ll ask the attorneys in our department if they have any suggestions for laws that need to be amended, and they submit those ideas to me. I do research on what other states have done to address the issues, and then work with the Attorney General on narrowing that list down to the bills she wants to bring. She usually has a few of her own bills that she wants to bring based on what she’s heard from constituents or the work she’s done. Once we decide on the bills we want to bring, we have to line up sponsors, and reach out to stakeholders who might be impacted by the new legislation.
I’m a lawyer, so I also do some legal work in the interim. I attend events with the Attorney General, respond to emails from legislators asking questions about constituent issues or legislation they want to bring, and attend interim legislative committee hearings that occur year round. It keeps me really busy, but there’s a lot of variety in what I do, and I really enjoy that.
Q: What would people be the most surprised to find out about being an attorney in your position?
A: People don’t totally understand what I do. It’s hard to understand how things work at the Capitol, because a lot of what happens is based on relationships. Being responsive to legislators is very important, and building relationships with them can take time. We’re all trying to work together for a common goal—the creation of policies that are good for the state and its citizens. A lot of what I do isn’t traditional; it isn’t writing a memo to a legislator, it’s talking to that legislator. It’s tracking the legislator down, making sure I’m in the right place when a bill is heard. I’m monitoring a bunch of different things at once, and things move very quickly. I think that people might think the job is a lot easier than it is. It’s fun, but it’s still a lot of work.
Q: What is the most difficult part of your job?
A: The most difficult part of working at the Capitol is that people tend to get burnt out and cranky near the end of the session. The hours that legislators and lobbyists work are so long sometimes—anywhere from 12 to 18 hours a day. Peoples’ fuses get short, and they can lose their cool with you. There’s a core group you see every day (the Capitol is just 100 members of the General Assembly, and about 100 core members of the lobby), so people ultimately end up apologizing. I try not to take it personally.
Q: What is your favorite part of your job?
A: The policy aspect. Going to the legislature is a more direct and fast way to change the law. As lawyers, we go to court and argue about what legislation means. It takes years for a case to go all the way to the Supreme Court. If you go to the legislature, on the other hand, you can just change what it says, and it will take effect almost immediately. It’s a system in which there’s some trial and error with what gets passed, but I like that it’s ultimately about solutions. You can create solutions through legislation, and that is what I really like. It feels productive.
Q: Do you find in working for the state that a retirement from PERA is a good benefit?
A: It’s nice to know that I don’t have to think about it; the contributions are taken out for me every month. I want to have a fruitful life and be able to take care of myself, so I do think long-term about my finances. The fact that a large percentage of my salary is being put away gives me a sense of security.
Q: Do you recommend this field to someone considering law?
A: Yes. The nice thing about this job is that it has allowed me to take a break from the traditional practice of law. For me, one of the hard things about practicing law at a firm was sitting at a desk by myself, and just researching and writing. With all of the technology we have in this day and age, there isn’t a ton of collaboration or interaction with other people, unless you’re having a client meeting or briefing one of your higher up attorneys on what you found during your research. I enjoy interacting with people, and in this job, there’s so much more interaction. There are tons of meetings about proposed legislation in which I have to be diplomatic; groups will disagree, and there’s a lot of negotiation involved. I enjoy that part of the job because I still get to practice law to some extent, but it’s not as isolating or combative.
Q: What advice do you have for people considering a career in law or state government?
A: For anyone considering going to law school, you should really think about what lawyers actually do on a day-to-day basis. If you love to read and write and are comfortable spending time by yourself thinking and making sense of what you’re learning about the law, I definitely think you should continue down that path. However, it seems that a lot of people go to law school for the wrong reasons. I find there are a lot of lawyers who aren’t very happy because the actual life of an attorney isn’t what they expected. I think it’s best to work at a law firm as a runner, assistant, or paralegal before you enroll in law school so you can really understand what it’s going to be like. I know people who have done that, and continued to pursue law school. In those cases, their expectations of what the practice of law is going to look like are correct.
In terms of working for the state, don’t just do one job for the rest of your career. Move around. I think it’s easy to become complacent, which often means that you no longer enjoy your job, and aren’t reaching your full potential. It’s public service, so it’s very important that we do a good job because we’re paid with taxpayer money.
Note for readers: If you’re currently a law student or judicial clerk, and interested in gaining practical experience in the public sector, consider applying for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office Fellowship Program. For more information, click here.