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Legislators are members of the legislative branch of government, which is responsible for making new laws and changing existing laws. They are elected by the public to work for the federal government or for various other levels of government. They govern by proposing bills, holding votes, and passing laws. Frequent public appearances at community and social events are customary for legislators.
A legislator typically does the following:
Most legislators serve on committees that oversee different areas of government policy. They are expected to develop expertise in those areas, as well as keep up with current local, national, and international events.
Most bills are proposed and developed in committees. To make informed decisions, legislators also hear testimonies from private citizens, political leaders, and interest groups.
The work of legislators relies on meeting with, listening to, and forming relationships with others. They confer with and debate colleagues about the merits of proposed laws and determine their colleagues’ level of support. In doing so, they must negotiate a compromise among different interest groups and review and respond to the concerns of the people they represent or the general public.
Legislators work in each level of government. They represent the interests of the people in their districts, such as encouraging investment and economic development in their jurisdiction, while also considering the needs of the entire nation. . About nine out of ten legislators work in local government. Many small communities have legislators who are volunteers and receive no salary. (These workers are not included in the employment or salary numbers in this profile.)
The working conditions of legislators vary by position and level of government. Although some legislators work only a few hours a week, others work long hours and have stressful schedules. Higher-level legislators travel often and may need to live away from home while the legislature is in session. Many spend a considerable amount of time meeting with people they represent and attending social functions in addition to their scheduled work hours.
Although most legislative positions have minimum age, residency, and citizenship requirements, there is no established education or training requirement to become a legislator. For most positions, however, candidates need a bachelor’s degree or higher to be competitive in elections. Successful candidates come from a variety of occupations, but many have experience in politics or management positions. Graduate degrees in law and business are also common, particularly in federal and state offices. A master’s degree in public administration, including courses such as public financial management and legal issues in public administration, can be helpful.
Because legislators are elected, most candidates must campaign for a position. While candidates in some local elections may run unopposed, campaigning for positions in other jurisdictions often requires long hours, persistence, and a significant amount of money. Candidates must, therefore, raise funds, make frequent public appearances, and meet with local voters.
Work experience is important for legislators. Candidates for legislative office often must demonstrate that they can make good decisions and lead effectively.
Many candidates have experience or a strong record of accomplishment working in law, management, business, education, or politics. Some have experience as members of community boards or commissions. Others become well-known for their work with charities, political action groups, political campaigns, or with religious or social organizations. Many people enter politics on a local level and gain experience there before seeking higher office.
Legislators must consider the implications of legislation and decide which positions to support. They must weigh the needs of private citizens, government, and society, and determine which bills to pass.
Legislators use interpersonal skills both to be elected to their position and to be effective at their job. It is important for them to build relationships with colleagues, public officials, organization leaders, and the people they represent. They often meet new people and must be able to communicate effectively with others.
Legislators need leadership skills to organize people effectively and enlist others—both colleagues and the people they represent—in support of policies. They often work with people with opposing viewpoints and must find ways to negotiate compromises to accomplish tasks. For example, they may have to be flexible on one issue to gain the support of their colleagues on another issue. They must assess issues and draft legislation that addresses the needs and problems of the people they represent, government, and society.
Speaking skills are essential for legislators. They must be able to explain their views when speaking with colleagues and the people they represent. They often give speeches, debate ideas, and attempt to persuade others.