Janice Cooper

Hometown: Yarmouth, ME
Current Job: Maine House of Representatives
Education: Vassar College
YLS year: 1971
Activities at YLS: Barristers Union


What do you do?

I am now an elected State Representative in the Maine Legislature, about to start my second two-year term. I represent the House District 47, which includes my town of Yarmouth as well as two islands added to my district after redistricting.

How did you get there?

The first job I had after graduating from YLS was at Legal Aid of Alameda County in California, a Legal Services Corporation that provides civil representation to indigent clients. After two years, I joined a small Oakland law firm doing a variety of litigation cases. Next, I went to Washington D.C. and worked for the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. From there, I briefly went to work as a general counsel for a fair housing organization, then went back to the House to work on a special oversight project on high profile FBI undercover operations. From there, I went into practice with my husband at our small firm where we handled a variety of criminal and civil litigation. After practicing there for two years, I worked for the House again on an impeachment case against a federal sitting judge from Florida, who ended up being convicted and removed. I next worked for a large corporate Virginia and Washington law firm, until I left to be editorial page and magazine editor at Legal Times, a weekly newspaper for lawyers and lobbyists. In 1997 my family and I moved to Maine and I worked for Congressman Tom Allen in his Portland office, primarily writing op eds, speeches and correspondence. When he ran for the Senate and lost in 2010, I worked as his personal editor for his book, Dangerous Convictions, and started an arts education community center in my town. When the Democratic incumbent representative decided not to seek re-election in 2012, I ran for and won that seat.

What’s your day-to-day life like as a State Representative?

My work consists primarily of considering legislation that is assigned to the committees on which I serve (currently Insurance and Financial Services and Environment and Natural Resources), participating in floor debates on those and other bills, and introducing my own bills and stewarding them through the process.

Each day that we sit (the first six months of the year during the first session, which includes enacting a biennial budget, and the first four months in the second session), the House meets in the morning to assign and consider bills. As the session proceeds and more bills are reported by the joint standing committees, the House spends most of its time in debate. Unlike in the U.S. House of Representatives, in the Maine Legislature every bill that is assigned has a public hearing and work session, and every witness gets heard. Unless unanimously rejected by the committee, the bill is considered on the floor, although non-controversial bills can “go under the hammer” without debate. In committee, we have the same kind of openness. Every bill gets an open hearing.

One unusual thing about Maine is that all bills have to be introduced before the session starts. In the second session, some bills get carried over with the permission of leadership and some new bills can be introduced if deemed an emergency. In the last legislature, I introduced four bills as an emergency and the leadership allowed me to proceed with three of them, which is unusual.

How does your work in State Government compare to your time in Washington? 

In Maine, I am a representative and not a staffer, which gives me much more latitude. As a staffer, several other staff members reviewed my writings before they got to the Congressman. By the time my original work got to the boss, it had been sanitized so much to avoid offense that it lost all its punch.  Now I speak and write my mind.

I love to write and I don’t hold my punches. Being an elected representative in state government has given me an opportunity to write in a way that is pure me. Through writing op-eds and newsletters to constituents, I have gotten a reputation as someone who is willing to say things where others fear to tread, such as on gun control matters. I also write my own e-newsletters and use these communications to explain to constituents why and how things happen at the Statehouse, and to explain my vote on contentious matters. People tell me they really appreciate this information and openness. Fortunately I seem to be in tune with the majority of voters, but I always remind myself that I did not take this position to ensure re-election.

In the Maine legislature, there are no time constraints on floor statements except one’s good sense to stop when you’re boring people.  I’ve gotten a reputation as someone who talks too much; that’s probably true and I’m trying to be more concise or sit on my hands more. As a former litigator, I have the advantage of not being afraid of public speaking on the floor and knowing how to question witnesses in committee. Maine legislators come from ordinary backgrounds and jobs. I am one of the few trained as a lawyer; we have small business owners, teachers, doctors, a marine biologist, farmers, etc. We are paid only $12,000 a year and there are no cushy jobs waiting for us when we leave. It is an act of public service and people go home to their small towns after they have served.

What issues do you hope to promote during the remainder of your first term?

That depends greatly on the political context in which I have to operate. For the next four years, we have the same governor who is a very conservative Republican. We have tried very hard to get Medicaid expanded and failed. This year, I am going to try a new approach, working again with a coalition of my colleagues and advocacy groups. I also have some bills that I will introduce that I think have a chance of bi-partisan support.

The issues that I am able to promote also will depend on what committees I am on. Since I am currently being considered for a change of committee, I am not sure where I will wind up. If I land on taxation, that is a whole new area for me, but I will put some effort into trying to make our tax code less burdensome for our middle class, and to end tax breaks that are not producing their intended benefits, such as job creation.


What was most valuable about your YLS experience? What is the most important lesson you took away from your time at YLS?

I was at YLS during the years Dean Goldstein dubbed  “the dark ages.” The upheavals going on around us proved transformative to the law school and me. One was the Panther murder trial in New Haven. We had massive demonstrations about the barriers to Black revolutionaries achieving a fair trial. We also shut down during the war in Cambodia and the Kent State killings. Internally, there was also a revolt against methods of teaching and grading. You can thank my generation for the pass-fail system. These events shaped my thinking about the role of the law as a force for social change.

In addition, my class of 1971 was the first class with a sizable number of women. We had 21 or so, a critical mass. We changed things at the law school on a number of levels. Professors had to get used to us being there and calling us, which was something they did not have to deal with before. We were a different kind of woman and we had different aspirations. A huge proportion of the females in my class went on to public interest work. Also, having women in our class and the classes that followed us made a big difference in my thinking about gender issues.

The most important lesson that I took away from my time at YLS was the knowledge that the law can be a positive force for improving society, by empowering the powerless. I have been primarily a lawyer in the public sector.

What skills do you rely on now but that law school did not emphasize enough?

I ended up becoming a writer and speaker, which uses skills that I don’t think the law school cultivates sufficiently. My job at Legal Times was to translate writing by practitioners into something that any lawyer or even the general public would be able to follow. I found that lawyers are lousy writers. They repeat the same points over and over, overuse legalese and are afraid to use interesting language to get their points across. Starting when I was practicing at a large firm, I learned how to write clearly. As an editor I learned how to write concisely in an interesting way. As a staffer for Congressman Allen, I learned how to write for the general public. Now I write all of the time, including a memoir that I am working on.

With that in mind, the law school should put more emphasis on teaching students how to write clearly and well and how to speak publicly. Not just oral arguments, but how to give an elevator speech. People are terrified of speaking. The more practice you get at both of those skills, the better a lawyer you will be. I think that every class should include a required presentation to the class that you’ve really thought through. As a trial lawyer, I learned how to speak on my feet. I never read my speeches on the floor. I have notes, but reading puts people to sleep. I also know how to examine witnesses, which most of my colleagues don’t. I just keep pressing until I get an answer that I think is accurate. All of those depositions came in handy.


What has been your biggest challenge?

Balancing family life with a legal career. I solved it by not working full time while my daughter was young and really not being as ambitious as many of my classmates. Remember, one of my classmates was Hillary Clinton. You can do it, but you have to work harder and longer than I was willing to do. Now I work very hard because I don’t have those obligations.

What do you view as your biggest accomplishment?

I would have said, my daughter, but she died three years ago. She is still my biggest accomplishment. She died at 23. She had already chosen a path that showed her to be a real humanitarian. She would have done great things.


What advice did you wish you had received about starting your career as a woman in the law?

I didn’t have my daughter until I was 42. I was lucky to be able to do that because by that age many women have fertility problems. I would think long and hard about putting off child bearing until you are really settled in your career. There is nothing wrong with doing it in the other order. You can build a brilliant career after you’ve started a family. Women have this special burden and so they have to make these decisions. I am not saying you have to have children in order to have a satisfying life, but if you know you do want a child, you have to think about how you will find the time.

What challenges are most pressing for young female lawyers? What should we focus on tackling?

I think the nature of the legal profession has changed. When I got out of law school there were jobs galore and you could make as much or as little money as you wanted. Today, there is an overabundance of trained lawyers and the job pickings are slimmer. This is especially concerning if you care about where you work and how you work. You may have to be creative in making your own work or turning whatever job you have into something you love. The challenge is figuring out what is most important and then working to make that happen. I see this to be a challenge facing all young lawyers today, men and women alike. That said, there is an added dimension confronting women in the sense that if they are trying to combine having children and have a career in the law, you have to be more deliberate about your professional choices.