How To Prepare Yourself For a Career In Government & Law
In the spring of 2003, I was in my final semester at Hamilton, about to graduate with a BA in Government. The United States had just begun a war with Iraq, and the economy was still recovering from the early 2000s recession. While many of my friends and classmates were applying to law school because it was what they had always wanted to do, I often heard of other classmates applying because they weren’t sure what they wanted to do. I was about 90% sure that I wanted to go to law school, but I needed to be sure before I invested more time and money in another three years of school. So, I set out to find a job.
I have always been a mission driven person: I wanted to work somewhere that fulfilled a sense of value for me personally and professionally, so I began to look into non-profit and Capitol Hill jobs. Leading up to graduation, I had some experience in D.C. and in politics. In the fall of 2001, I spent the semester in D.C. with the Hamilton in Washington Program, which was an incredible experience. In the summer of 2002, I interned on a hotly contested U.S. House campaign in Connecticut. The race was one of only five in the country that was a “member versus member race,” where both candidates were current U.S Representatives and were facing each other due to redistricting. As a result, Capitol Hill seemed to be a logical next step, but getting a “real” job there is competitive. To land my first job on the Hill, I networked with as many people as I could – some from my semester in D.C. and others who were Hamilton alums or family friends. I literally walked around Capitol Hill and met with as many people as were willing to talk with me in the hope that they would pass my resume on if a job opportunity came up. Sure enough, that opportunity happened earlier than I thought possible, and I was employed by a U.S. Senator’s office within two months of my graduation.
Entry level jobs anywhere – and often on Capitol Hill – are tough. In that first role, I spent most of every day talking on the phone with constituents, many of whom were calling because they were upset about something. My job was to help and to be kind and professional, but it was challenging (and exhausting) to stay constantly positive when you’re often dealing with angry people. Don’t get me wrong; there were many amazing things about that job that outweighed the challenging parts, and I treated the challenging parts of the job as a learning experience. But after about a year, I was looking for something new.
From there, I ended up at a well-known, state-level advocacy organization. It was there that I began the first of many roles where I was given more responsibility and opportunity than I ever thought possible. I researched legislative issues, attended meetings with state legislators, testified before a state legislative body, and most importantly, I was mentored by two remarkable female attorneys. It was after doing this work for two years and working with these great people that I was finally sure: I was ready for law school.
I’ll spare you the details about my time in law school and summer work experience, which could be its own topic, but I will say this: I was a better law student (and today I’m a better attorney), because of the work that I did after college and before law school. This is not to say that working in the interim should be a requirement for all, but if you are at all uncertain about your path, I recommend taking that time to gain working world experience.
In law school, I built on my Hamilton career and took as many legal writing classes as I could. When I went to law school – and I believe it is still the case today – students were only required to take a first-year legal writing class, which is a shame given how much writing is involved in legal work.
In 2009, I once again found myself graduating amid a recession. The housing bust and the major financial bailouts occurred while I was sitting in class during my third and final year of law school. I was again lucky enough to have secured a post-graduate job as a legal research clerk at the Superior Court (trial court) level in Connecticut, and I’m certain that I got that competitive role not only because of my grades, but because of my writing skills.
As a law clerk, I spent nearly two years working closely with wonderful judges. I spent my days researching complex legal issues and writing memoranda about the law and recommending how judges should rule on legal motions. Sometimes the judges would take my memoranda verbatim and turn it into their decisions. For anyone that loves to analyze and write, this was a dream job, and to date, it was the most enjoyable role that I’ve ever had.
But clerking is not meant to last forever, and I had to figure out what was next. I had law firm opportunities, but I was not sure, for a variety of reasons, that the firm setting was where I wanted to be at that point in my life. And suddenly a unique opportunity seemingly fell in my lap – and one that did because of something I dedicated myself to over my early professional life: keeping in touch with professional contacts. Remember that campaign I worked on as a college student? The congressman ended up losing that race, but he remembered me. After he lost, he started a non-profit organization that was growing and needed an in-house legal and compliance professional. One day, a mutual acquaintance got in touch: Was I interested in interviewing for this newly created position?
The decision to interview for that role has defined my professional life over the last 8 years since. I started at the Connecticut Institute For Communities, Inc. (CIFC) in the newly created Staff Attorney & Compliance Officer role. It was in that role that I began to make so many operational recommendations, that three years after I started, I was asked: Are you interested in applying to become the new chief operating officer? For the last five years, I have served as chief operating officer & general counsel at CIFC. In that time, we’ve grown from an organization of approximately 100 employees to that of nearly 400 employees. The programs and services that we offer are diverse, and I have never had one day that is like another. I’ve had to advise doctors in one moment, and housing staff in another. I’ve become a generalist in many areas, and I’ve learned when to bring in outside counsel for specific expertise.
In addition to the advice I’ve already mentioned, there are a few other things that I’d recommend as recent grads start out on their career paths:
1) Value your professional relationships and find a mentor. As I’ve mentioned already, I’ve been lucky to have professional mentors, but I was and continue to be even luckier to be mentored by my mother, who is also an attorney and an executive. Learn from those closest to you; they are often people that know you best and have the best advice!
2) Treat everything as a learning experience (even the difficult jobs and moments). My experiences haven’t all been wonderful at every moment. I’ve had challenging times in all of my roles, but I always try to learn something from those challenges.
3) Don’t be afraid to try something you don’t know how to do. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve done new or unknown things in my current role. I tend to live by the Lily Tomlin quote: “I said somebody should do something about that. And then I realized, I am somebody.”
4) Don’t assume that non-profit work is “easier” work. Part of my decision to head into the in-house world after clerking had to do with my role as a new parent and my spouse’s work schedule at the time. I was able to negotiate a flexible schedule at my new non-profit job. Having said that, I don’t think I’ve had any less work in my role than I would have had in a law firm. Non-profit work is often done on lean budgets and without a lot of staff support. For some, flexibility may not be an even tradeoff for the lack of help or other resources. It is a personal decision, and it also depends on whether flexibility is an option in the first place.
5) Know your worth but know that you must prove it and put in the work. You can graduate at the top of your class, but it won’t matter if you don’t put in the work. The difference between those that succeed in the working world – and particularly in law and government – are those that are willing to put in the hard work. If you do that, you must also know when to make sure that you are receiving the value you deserve for that work – and ask for it, if need be - but that comes after the hard work.
And above all, I’ve learned that in any high stress or high-level work environment, it is important to find an outlet that is outside of your work and family responsibilities. Find a hobby, exercise, take time for yourself – if you don’t, you risk burn out. And remember: no job or career path is set in stone.
I hope you have as many wonderful opportunities as I’ve had thus far!