From corporate law in India to policy and legislation work in the US: Samar Jha shares his journey

Samar Jha speaks on his journey as a public administration professional and the many learnings along the way.
Samar Jha
Samar Jha

Samar Jha, who started his career as a corporate lawyer in India, eventually pivoted to pursuing a career in public administration in the United States.

He is currently Government Affairs Director at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), an interest group focusing on issues affecting persons over the age of fifty.

Bar & Bench spoke to the NALSAR graduate on his journey thus far as a public administration professional and the many learnings along the way.

Edited excerpts follow.

What made you venture into public administration?

It was more of an accident, because I was previously a corporate lawyer...While I was at NALSAR, I followed the path that a lot of my classmates followed, joining big-tier law firms. After working for a few years, I was tired of law firms, so I began teaching at Rainmaker and then I decided to do my Masters at the University of Pennsylvania...

...After this, I was to go back to India and work in a law firm, but I got an opportunity as a public policy fellow in the city of Philadelphia... It was a fellowship - a glorified internship - working in the City Council President’s office. So I took a chance to see how it goes. In the end, I loved it. I realized that I love doing policy work, love doing advocacy work...Once I began the fellowship, I just changed course; it sort of pivoted my career from being a corporate lawyer to a public policy professional.

What is the difference between public policy and public administration?

A lot of people use it interchangeably and rightfully so, because when you do take up a Master's in Public Administration (MPA) or a Master's in Public Policy (MPP), a lot of courses intersect... But MPA is mostly focused on managing programs that are related to public good. MPP is primarily focused on creating policies that drive those programs. So, I would say MPP precedes MPA, and once you have the policies in place, then you can drive the program, and that’s where public administration professionals come in...

How did you secure the opportunity to work in public policy in the US and how difficult was it to shift base?

It was difficult in the sense that I was initially looking to join as a corporate lawyer either in a New York law firm, or come back to India. Most probably I would have ended up somewhere in Bombay, Delhi or Bangalore, working in one of the law firms. But while I was doing this, I realised that I needed to shift focus in finding jobs. When I saw this public administration fellowship, I thought “let’s try it”. Initially, lots of people who do an LL.M. face the same thing, they apply and apply, and then they get rejected. Especially when you’re not used to such rejections, you get bogged down by them. So, when I saw this position at the City of Philadelphia, I decided to try it and see how it goes. And that’s how I did it. It was more of a pivot and more of a chance that I was taking and I’m glad that I took it. And that’s how I got through and then pivoted in my career.

How did your stint as a lawyer help you while engaging in public administration work?

It makes a huge difference. You will notice that a lot of people who do JDs in the US end up doing public policy work and joining governments at the state or federal level. In India, it’s still developing; now, you can see students coming out of law schools and doing policy work. Here, in the US, it’s already developed; there is an infrastructure in place for people who want to come out of law school and do policy work. So, having legal training makes a huge difference when you do policy work because you look at legislation in a very different way; you can review legislation and see what is and what isn’t working...your work is easier because you analyse legislation in a way that a non-lawyer would not be able to. Nothing against non-lawyers, but in my opinion, legal training does help you in legislative work.

What were your roles and responsibilities as Director of Government & Public Affairs at the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors?

I was the Chief Lobbyist for the Association. It is a trade association which comprises realtors, who are like real estate agents...The Realtors’ Association has local, state and federal affiliations. I worked at mostly the local and the state level. Philadelphia occupies a very important position in the state of Pennsylvania, so I did some state lobbying work, but I mostly worked on city lobbying issues and did advocacy at the City Council and met with lawmakers. With any legislation that was introduced, we used to take positions on those. I would review the legislation and take them back to my board of directors, asking them to take a position for or against the legislation. Then, we strategize our legislative efforts according to whichever position the board of directors took, based on my review.

For example, if we took a position against a legislation, we would try to strategize our advocacy efforts to make sure that the legislation did not pass. But, sometimes when you do advocacy work, you don’t get 100% success. So we try to negotiate the least amount of damage that can happen with lawmakers, with the other side, the other coalition and within our coalition. So, we work to ensure that the legislation that passes is least harmful for the work that you’re doing.

I also did fundraising and political campaigns for my Association. Since ours was a 501(c)(4) (social welfare organization), we were allowed to do fundraising and political campaign work. So, while I was not directly involved in doing political campaigns for elected officials or people running for office, I was doing behind the scenes work for them.

What is AARP and what is the nature of your work there?

AARP is America’s largest association membership with more than 35 million members. It advocates for people aged 50+. However, most of the work done relates to all sorts of legislation that affects all age groups.

My work at AARP is expanded from the work that I did at the Realtors Association. As a Government Affairs Director, I handle the state housing advocacy of AARP. I handle the advocacy for 50 states and 3 state offices - Puerto Rico, American Virgin Islands and DC. For any housing, land use or public spaces issues that come up at the AARP’s state offices, the advocacy is handled by me. I work with state offices on state housing issues or local housing issues and come up with strategies to advocacy. We determine the position that we want to take and then work to strategize to pass a legislation, stop a legislation, negotiate legislation or even draft a legislation. I have also worked in drafting legislation at the local and the state level.

What does a usual day as a Director at AARP look like?

Usually, I look at emails that I’ve received from state offices... regarding new legislation that has been introduced and review them and determine the position that they can take. They ask me to do research and give them data on certain housing issues. They also approach me when a lawmaker at the city or the state level approaches them to talk about a certain legislation. It is an interesting day for me, and can range from talking to lawmakers at the city council, state or even the federal level, and their staff members. Talking to staff is more important than talking to the lawmaker, since they are the gatekeepers and we usually work with them; we may meet and talk with a lawmaker, but it is their staff that we primarily work with.

I love coming up with strategies on legislation, what is going to work and what isn’t going to work. When I review a legislation, I also provide the language, and this is where legal training comes into work. If you have the legal training, you can come up with language for the legislation. When I review the legislation, I will look at it and determine how we can change the legislation so that it is better for us, and also the things that need to be deleted...

...Negotiation is also extremely important. The skills are very transferable. If you have been a corporate lawyer, a litigator or an in-house lawyer, you have the training to look at legislation and come up with legislative language, and also how to negotiate.

What attributes should a prospective applicant for an MPA/MPP course have?

The good thing about an MPA or an MPP course is that varied people from different backgrounds take it, just like the MBA. You see a lot of law school students taking up CAT and joining IIMs. I won’t say that there are certain attributes that you require for an MPA or an MPP course, but you will have some quant study, you’ll have to go through statistics and economics courses...

...As a lawyer, be mindful of what electives you want to take. If you want to become a public policy professional or public administration professional, you need to understand that electives will matter. For example, I was in government affairs, government relations, public policy work and advocacy, so I wanted to take electives which were relevant to my field. So, I took something on government affairs, I took behavioural economics and public communications. Similarly, if you are in tech policy, take an elective which is related to it. There is no special preparation that you need when entering an MPA or MPP course as a lawyer, but it will help you.

What advice would you share for law students and lawyers who want to work in public policy/administration?

For students - if you are interested in these fields, do internships accordingly. If you want to do an MPA or an MPP course, look at universities. Also, you don’t always need an MPA to go into this field; your legal training is adequate. Again, if you are interested in these fields, structure your internships accordingly.

For lawyers - if you want to shift to policy work, it will require you to sacrifice some things and forget about your previous career. If you want to pivot, start working on public policy issues and find opportunities that align with the work that you want to do. The City Council Fellowship was something that I took a chance on. You don’t actually have to completely change your background; if you are working in a field and want to pivot to the policy side of it, you can do it without completely changing your career.

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