Making Media Appearances and Public Advocacy as an Attorney

By Sandra Feist

Media appearances can increase organically, as long as you allow yourself to take hold of opportunities to lead and to speak up. 

I knew I had “arrived” the day that the executive director of an organization designated as a national hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center directly argued with me about an article on the administration’s use of procedural mischief to achieve its policy goals. It felt cathartic to be having the fight directly, rather than railing at an unreachable foe from the outside. This article is about the How and the Why of stepping out from behind the scenes to make your point to the broader public through media appearances and outlets. 

My own path to advocacy through the media began with small steps. I gained comfort with seeing my words and name in print through short articles for professional associations, such as Minnesota Women Lawyers and the MSBA New Lawyers Section's online publication, Hearsay. I joined the Hennepin Lawyer committee as a young lawyer and quickly moved from writing articles to serving as an issue editor, with my own ‘Inside View’ from the editor. Opportunities to grow my media presence expanded as I took on volunteer leadership roles within the local and immigration legal communities. As described below, media appearances can increase organically, as long as you allow yourself to take hold of opportunities to lead and to speak up. 

The How

First and foremost, know that the people who the media considers experts just woke up one day and decided they were experts. As lawyers, we are all specialists with expertise and opinions from which the public can benefit. Your opinion matters and is interesting, so don’t wonder whether you’re out of place in the public eye. Be bold and speak up. 

Second, and perhaps my favorite tip: time management! It’s exhausting writing articles, scheduling trips to the recording studios to be interviewed, and preparing to be on a panel of intimidating experts on the radio. These activities will consume your schedule and your energy if you let them. So don’t. I woke up today and told myself, “I said I’d write this article by the 23rd and it’s the 18th. I better get to it!” I scheduled out a chunk of time and pounded it out in that window, focused and efficient. I schedule specific windows of time for smaller advocacy tasks as well, such as reaching out to clients to try and connect them with reporters. Using time wisely is key. 

I began my activities in the public eye by writing letters to the editor to local newspapers, such as my New Brighton newspaper, where I submitted an ardent pro-vaccination article to inform my neighbors about the importance of vaccinations. Top tip: Your tiny little newspaper loves it when local residents submit pithy little opinion pieces. This is a great way to get practice and build your record of publication and outreach as a leader in the community. I’ve also co-authored pieces for local newspapers, which is a way to spread out the time commitment and have a built-in editor to ensure your article is in top shape. One such article was on a technical area of passion of mine – a law called “245(i)” – that I and a friend presented in a punchy, readable format to the general public. Such publications are an efficient use of time and an effective way to build your name as a local expert – not to mention that they are an excellent way to inform the public about topics important to you.

As mentioned above, my advocacy has been facilitated from the beginning by the immigration legal community. Find mentors and resources in your practice area, and in the legal community. Rely on others to help you, then pass it on by mentoring and editing and coaching younger attorneys once you’ve risen up. 

As a last tip: Don’t feel that you have to be perfect. Speak your mind. Do your homework and prepare for an interview with your talking points and examples, but don’t overthink the interview once it’s over, and don’t worry if one or two quotes aren’t quite what you hoped. Over time, your confidence will grow, as will your skill. Ultimately, these efforts are worth the time, energy and effort because you will build your reputation, your communication skills, your confidence and your satisfaction with your career.

The Why

Initially, my goal in reaching out to local media to advocate was encouraged and facilitated by professional associations. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) actively encourages and provides editorial assistance and services in helping its members to public editorials, letters to the editor and substantive articles in news outlets. The goal from AILA’s standpoint is to share its members’ expertise with a broader audience. The goal from the members’ standpoint is aligned, but with an extra element of establishing a reputation as a thought leader and legal expert.

As my comfort with writing articles and opinions to small and mid-sized newspapers grew, I found myself reaching out to radio reporters and contributing to advocacy groups within professional associations. Through my volunteer leadership roles, I became the point person for local reporters who would reach out to me first when there was an immigration topic in the news. I began to reciprocate, emailing reporters on topics they may not yet have picked up on. I wrote articles on topics near and dear to my heart, practical articles on the state my field of immigration law, and articles on areas of passion within the legal realm but outside my practice. Seeing my name in print over time gave me more confidence and belief that my opinion matters and is valuable to the public forum. 

The 2016 election was a watershed moment for me. Suddenly, my gripes about the technical hassles and lack of imagination for immigration policy of the Obama presidency transformed into an omnipresent rage over the all-out war on my clients and my field of law. I transitioned from local advocacy leadership to national leadership through AILA, eager to speak up more loudly, to share my clients’ stories when they were too terrified to do so. In particular, while the injustices and heartbreaking desolation of refugees and asylees was gaining attention from the public, the plight and hardship faced by my high-skilled immigrant clients was so technical and complex that the human suffering was often buried beneath layers of complex statistics and charts. I wanted to ensure that the public understood that the war on immigration was a war on all fronts. Award-winning infectious disease experts, business leaders and accomplished athletes were being targeted with the same extreme hate as the attacks on low-income migrants.

Ultimately, I speak up because I feel I have a moral obligation to do so, regardless of the risk of misspeaking and embarrassing myself or of placing myself out in the line of fire during this turbulent interlude where the consequences are truly unpredictable. 

I have found the byproducts of media advocacy to be numerous. The obvious benefit of being interviewed by news outlets is publicity and the growth of my public persona, which has benefited my practice and given an expanding pool of clients confidence in my character and my expertise. One less obvious benefit has been an expansion of my community of peers through joint advocacy. The sense of solidarity and the satisfying planning sessions for messaging and media strategy have connected me to so many talented, passionate attorneys who I would never have met in any other contacts. Another benefit has been the personal growth that has resulted over the past years of consistently challenging myself and getting outside my comfort zone. 

One last unexpected consequence of my media appearances has been a sense of being powerful, rather than powerless, in the face of professional challenges that were unimaginable to me in 2001 when I first began working in the field of immigration law. These days, immigration attorneys face ever-increasing odds, and it is easy to feel dejected and hopeless. By speaking up, stridently and passionately, I take some of the power back and wield it on behalf of my clients indirectly.

By Sandra Feist

Ms. Feist is a partner at the law firm Grell Feist, where she practices immigration law with an emphasis on employment-based cases. She is the past chair of the MN/Dakotas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and a current Board Member of the HCBA. 


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