From a Dance Major at Kirkland to Criminal Appeals Lawyer
At Kirkland, I was a dance major and anthropology minor. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. But in 1975, when I graduated, that was not unusual, and particularly not at Kirkland, where the focus was on self-discovery and developing your talents and interests. At that time, though, the stakes were not as high — the rent on my first apartment in New York City, a one-bedroom that I shared with a friend, was about $130 per month for each of us. After two years of waitressing, low level office jobs and working on an unsuccessful Senate campaign, I decided to go to law school, with a vague idea of doing “arts law.”
Much to my parents’ surprise — they viewed my Kirkland education as completely flakey and impractical — I did very well in law school, and began my legal career as an associate at a large law firm. I joined an international law firm to satisfy the anthropologist side of me, because of my love of traveling and learning about other cultures. However, “international” for my cases simply meant that the clients were foreign, and as the junior associate, I’d be the one left behind in New York writing research memos all night while the partner and senior associate met the clients in Paris, Japan or elsewhere. I began to realize that monetary success, whether for myself or for my client’s business, did not especially motivate me. In contemplating my next move, I spoke to other young lawyers who had left big firm practice. It seemed to me that those who were happiest were working in government jobs, where you had more autonomy in your work and control over your life.
And that’s how I ended up as a prosecutor at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. To be honest, I did not envision myself sending criminals to jail – I hadn’t wanted to deal with criminals at all. With no experience or training in criminal law, I thought the Appeals Bureau would allow me to learn the law. At first it was a shock. My favorite part of private practice had been interacting with clients. Suddenly, I was sitting at a desk researching and writing all day. (And to disclose a secret as to why I decided to be a dance major at Kirkland major, I made that choice so that I would not have to write a paper for my senior project!) Despite what I had envisioned in being a lawyer, my career move to the Appeals Bureau meant writing, writing and more writing. To my surprise, I found that enjoyed writing, and the artistry of crafting a compelling brief. The highlight for me as a prosecutor was oral argument before the Appellate Division, First Department, the New York State Court of Appeals, and occasionally, with a habeas petition, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. At the DA’s Office, unlike at a law firm, you argued your own cases. No one senior would step in to handle the argument, even on a case that raised important issues. That was very rewarding, especially when you saw that your responses were persuading the judges.
After 17 years in the DA’s Office, I spent several years in legal recruiting in various roles. Then I returned to appellate practice.
For the past ten years, I have been a court attorney at the Appellate Division, First Department. I now see the cases from a judicial perspective. While I’ve done some civil cases and Family Court cases, mostly I handle criminal cases. I review the record, the trial transcripts and the parties’ briefs, then write a report for the judges analyzing the issues and recommending a result. While I might not have wanted such a behind-the-scenes right out of law school, now I really like the work. I see so many cases and can observe how the law evolves. And our work as court attorneys is important, as the judges rely on our reports to learn about the cases and prepare for oral argument.
As for what I do when not practicing law, all these years later, dance is still a big part of my life. I manage to take ballet classes multiple times per week, with the many options for classes in New York City. I have a wonderful family, a big, happy rescue dog and some tortoises rescued by our older son, Lyle Cleary ’12, who is now a veterinarian in NYC specializing in exotics.