Alexander Hamilton once said, “the first duty of society is justice.” Thus, it seems almost fateful that I, having graduated from the college which bears his name, wound-up devoting nearly my entire professional life to the pursuit of that most primary social obligation.
The DOJ’s website characterizes the United States Attorney as “the chief federal law enforcement officer” in District to which they are appointed. I am one of 93 men and women across our great country who have the honor of serving as U.S. Attorney. My District, the Western District of New York (WDNY), employs roughly 65 Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs) and an equal number of support staff who serve under my command. Our work is wide-ranging. On the criminal side, we, together with our partners in federal, state, and local law enforcement, are responsible for investigating and prosecuting violations of the federal criminal law.
Our portfolio includes cases involving terrorism, national security, espionage, organized crime, political corruption, cybercrime, drug trafficking, firearms, child exploitation, civil rights violations, immigration offenses, human trafficking, hate crimes, tax evasion, intellectual property violations, fraud and financial crimes, environmental crimes, bank robbery, and many others. Civilly, we defend government agencies and pursue affirmative litigation seeking to combat fraud, waste, and abuse against the government.
Among my responsibilities is hiring. Through my experience, I have identified four (4) basic attributes that I typically look for in successful AUSA candidates. I do not find it coincidental that throughout my professional career I have come to recognize these same traits as being common to successful people no matter their work. I refer to them as the Four Loves: (1) Love of Learning; (2) Love of Mission; (3) Love of People; and (4) Love of Character.
Love of Learning
Nearly 27 years ago, I was hired as an Assistant United States Attorney following my completion of an appellate clerkship. What I lacked in litigation knowledge and experience (my first day as an AUSA I had a court appearance and had to ask a paralegal on my way to court on which side of the courtroom I was supposed to stand), I made up for in my desire to learn, my willingness to work hard, and my ability to write. A love for learning is critical as a federal prosecutor. Each new matter is like preparing a bath. As you begin to prepare for a trial, you must begin filling your tub (your brain) with everything that there is to know about your case. Under our system of justice, prosecutors bear the burden of proof at trial, and thus it is incumbent for our knowledge of our case to be superior to everyone else in the courtroom. Our reservoir of knowledge about our case must be completely full when it comes time to go to court. Once the trial is over, however, we must drain our tub in order that we may begin refilling it with the information we need for our next case.
The good news is that if you are reading this as a Hamilton student, you already have experience, by virtue of your liberal arts curriculum, in filling (and refilling) your reservoir of knowledge. You do not get into Hamilton—much less succeed there—unless you possess both the avidity and the aptitude to learn new things. Never relinquish your love of learning. Nurture it. Feed it. Cherish it. Whether inside the courtroom or out, your love of learning will provide you with the lifetime operating system that you will need in order to bathe yourself in success.
Love of Mission
Love of your mission shows in all that you do. Those who love their mission exude a certain passion, and that passion inspires and motivates others. Choose your mission wisely. Think about those things that you believe define you as a person, and align your mission with those things.
In my case, one of the things that defined me growing up was my desire to help others. Having started at Hamilton as a pre-med student and realizing after freshman biology that perhaps I did not have what it took to be a physician, I began exploring other ways that I might be able to help others. I enjoyed the sciences and having grown up in the shadow of Love Canal, my initial thought was to go to law school in order to practice environmental law. However, when, during my first environmental law class in law school, the practitioner teaching the course mentioned that he had spent his entire career on one case, I changed my mind, as another trait that largely defined me was my competitive nature. I could not envision myself spending my life playing a single game. I love to compete. When I finally gained some exposure to the criminal law during a post-law school appellate clerkship, I knew I had found something that would allow me to combine my desires to help others with my need to compete. Each day I get to serve my country, as I collaborate with some brilliant colleagues, often times competing against some extremely bright and clever defense attorneys and wise federal judges.
Love of People
What good is success if it only benefits you and you have no one with whom to share it? If you do not love the people who surround you each day, then you will fail them and you will never realize you potential. Without love for your people, you run the risk of alienating them from your mission and, in so doing, lessening the likelihood that you will ever achieve it. Love of your people ensures care and concern. This does not mean lowered expectations or “taking it easy on them.” To the contrary, it often means pushing them harder and helping them grow. While this love of people is required for the leader of an organization, such as the United States Attorney, I also find it to be a prerequisite for the lowest ranking member of the organization who aspires to something more.
Though the U.S. Attorney’s position I currently occupy is a political appointment, I began my career in this Office in 1992 as an AUSA. AUSA positions are, by law, non-partisan. Indeed, that is, in my estimation, one of the very best things about working as an AUSA—it is a total meritocracy. I was LMOTP (low-man-on-the-totem-pole) for a number of years in the Office. As an AUSA trying cases, my love for people translated into a heightened capacity for empathy, which, in turn, gave me an enhanced ability to communicate and connect with witnesses, jurors, and judges. As the least experienced AUSA in the Office, I constantly volunteered to help more experienced AUSAs in the Office, by using some of the research and writing skills I developed during my appellate clerkship (and at Hamilton) to assist others in the Office. Through my unfailing willingness to assist, I provided tangible evidence to my coworkers of the love I had both for them and for our shared mission. As my career in the Office unfolded, that love was returned to me, as I was assigned increasingly high-profile cases, promoted through the ranks, named Acting United States Attorney, and eventually nominated by the Attorney General of the United States to serve as U.S. Attorney. Indeed, both inside and outside of the courtroom, my love for people proved to be integral to whatever success I have enjoyed.
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Love of Character
Finally, if you do not love your own character, then you will fail in the shadow of temptation; you will not succeed. People follow and mirror the actions of those they wish to emulate. Good character breeds the trust required for success both in the courtroom and in life. As a prosecutor, we take an oath to uphold, support, and defend the law and the Constitution of the United States. If we fail in our Oath, then we fail in our Office. Employees, jurors, and just about everyone else in your life will be reluctant to follow you if they view you as morally flawed. That said, the good news about character is that even if it is flawed, it is never too late to fix it!
So, in the end, while I believe that Hamilton was correct in characterizing justice as our “first duty,” I have come to view justice as something more than that. Justice is a virtue, and each day, I am humbled by the fact that I have been fortunate to have spent nearly my entire professional career working for the only government agency named for a virtue—the United States Department of Justice.
James Kennedy majored in sociology and was a member of men’s football and the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon. He earned his J.D. from Buffalo State College in 1988. He is currently the Acting United States Attorney at the United States Department of Justice.