November 19, 2013 | Leave a Comment
If someone had told me at age 24 that I would become a lawyer, I would have told them they were crazy. I had majored in geology as an undergraduate, spent a couple of summers at Woods Hole, and entered a Ph.D. program with the idea of becoming a marine geologist. After deciding that path was not for me, I had an M.S. in geology and no career aspirations. I considered a number of options, ranging from scientific journalism to carpentry. Deep down, though, I was seeking a way to turn my 1960s activist spirit into a job. As a young teenager, I had been angry and passionate about the Vietnam War, civil rights, and what we then called women’s liberation. Environmental issues were never at the top of my list of political concerns, but I was attracted to environmental advocacy because it would allow me to integrate my love of science with political action.
When I started at Harvard Law School in 1980, the environmental offerings were paltry. I almost dropped out after one year, because I couldn’t envision how a law degree could translate into meaningful work. But I was fortunate to connect with the Conservation Law Foundation (a regional environmental advocacy organization headquartered in Boston) as a 2L, and I worked there as an intern over the next two years. The lawyers there were stopping offshore oil leasing, battling pollution, and saving forests, and I was hooked. After law school, I spent one year as a legal fellow for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco and two years as a Massachusetts assistant attorney general in the environmental protection division.
I learned to my surprise that I actually thrived as a litigator, in spite of my initial terror at any type of public speaking. When family life brought me to the New York area, I was lucky to land another position at NRDC as a litigator in its “citizen enforcement project.” That project—which was disbanded in 1994—focused almost exclusively on enforcing Clean Water Act discharge permits. But the cases were more varied than one might expect: one enforcement action against a Texaco oil refinery lasted for 19 years, requiring several trials and appeals to hold the refinery accountable for its pollution. (The moral of that story is that public interest lawyers have to be like pit bulls; once we latch on, you can never shake us off!)
I am now a member of NRDC’s litigation team, a group of about a dozen lawyers, located in four of our offices, who specialize in litigation, rather than a particular substantive area. (Most other NRDC lawyers focus on a discrete set of issues, like energy, oceans, clean air, or endangered species.) Thirty years after becoming a lawyer, I am having the most fun of my career—because of the excellence and camaraderie of my team, the freedom to choose what cases to tackle, and the rewards of mentoring young litigators. I also love seeing a case go from the first development of the legal theory through motions, discovery, trials (occasionally), and appeals. My favorite cases typically involve a big, bad actor (industry or government); an intractable environmental problem; and feisty clients. In the past few years, I have helped to secure a cleanup of chromium from historical industrial operations in a working-class community in New Jersey; to challenge EPA’s registrations of pesticides that pose risks to human and ecological health; and to formulate legal strategies to target mold in New York City public housing. I am particularly drawn to environmental justice litigation and have learned that environmental advocacy is intimately bound up in the political, economic, and social concerns that moved me as a teenager.
My advice for HLS students who are aspiring environmental advocates is to learn to be a great writer, a critical thinker, and a resourceful researcher. Those generic skills—combined with a demonstrated drive to serve the public good—will carry you far. You also have an exciting array of academic and clinical choices, along with a vibrant environmental community, to help you on your path to a rewarding career.
Written by OPIA Summer Fellow Samantha Sokol
Current 3L Jessica Frisina spent last summer in New Orleans as an intern at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (formerly known as Juvenile Regional Services). This agency provides public defense in delinquency proceedings to over 1,000 juveniles in New Orleans each year. They use a team-based approach with social workers, youth advocates, and attorneys working together to holistically support juvenile clients and their families.
Jessica was paired with a staff attorney who provided close supervision. During each day, she worked closely with the attorney on a variety of tasks. She was able to work directly with clients and their families nearly every day. She also had many opportunities to appear in court, which was one of her favorite parts of the summer. In the office, she had a chance to practice legal writing by drafting motions and other documents for the court, writing investigation requests, and making referrals to client services.
Over the course of the summer, her supervisor gradually allowed Jessica more opportunity to work on tasks independently. She was on the whole very happy with the level of supervision, feeling that her supervisor simultaneously supported and challenged her in a way that allowed her to develop new skills and served the clients’ best interest.
Jessica returned to Harvard even more committed to a career in juvenile justice. She’s continuing to develop her skills, currently working to defend juveniles in Boston through Harvard Law’s Criminal Justice Institute. She credits her summer in New Orleans with making her realize how much she enjoys working with youth and doing defense work, and that she particularly likes delinquency work.
However, in reflecting upon her summer experience, Jessica expressed that she developed a deeper belief in the need for structural change in the criminal justice system. She described seeing cases in New Orleans where the adversarial system was not serving the best long-term interests of the youth and communities she was working with. Learning from this experience, she hopes to be able to combine criminal defense work with more systemic criminal justice reform in the future.
Written by OPIA 1L Section Representative Jessica Ranucci
A career in public interest law was always on the agenda for Suzette Smikle ’02, who currently serves as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) in the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) for the Northern District of Georgia. Smikle was born in a poor neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in New York City, where she attended public schools. She then received a scholarship to attend an independent preparatory school in Connecticut. Her Jamaican-American background inspired an interest in international and community service. “I’ve had so many great opportunities,” she says. “I knew I had to give back to my community, both locally and internationally.” A skilled oral advocate, Smikle decided from an early age that a career in law would be her way to give back.
When Smikle arrived at Harvard Law School in 1999, she knew that she wanted to pursue public service. At HLS, Smikle was active in the Black Law Students Association and served as Co-Chair of the Africa Summit Committee. She planned and attended humanitarian trips to South Africa, Kenya, and Haiti, and served as the president of Direct Action, a human rights group on campus. Her 3L year, Smikle arranged a for-credit internship in Jamaica with the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights. She remarks, “I found that there were an abundance of international opportunities available to me at HLS. […] I figured out that I loved international work.” Smikle also pursued many traditional opportunities. She participated in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, the Family Law Clinic at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center, the Criminal Justice Institute, and the Child Advocacy Program. At the same time, Smikle kept busy as a member of the Harvard Law Review. Smikle recalls, “I never went to bed before midnight at HLS. There were too many exciting things to do!”
After graduation and a judicial clerkship, Smikle was awarded a Heyman Fellowship and began work as an Honors Attorney at the Department of Justice in the Civil Division’s Office of Consumer Litigation. After almost five years, however, international work still sparked her interest. In 2008, she was appointed as a Foreign Service Attorney at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Because of her French language skills and previous experiences, Smikle expected a post in West Africa. Instead, USAID offered her intensive Spanish training and sent her to Lima to serve as the Regional Legal Advisor for Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. There, she provided training and legal advice on USAID’s programs in health, education, agricultural development, democracy promotion, water sanitation, and economic growth. Smikle found this work challenging and broadening, but missed the opportunities for trial advocacy she had at DOJ.
Smikle’s interest in trial work ultimately led her to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, where she prosecutes violent crime, gun and drug cases, bank robberies, human trafficking, and gang-related cases as an AUSA in the Major Crimes Section of the office’s Criminal Division. Smikle’s day-to-day work involves writing motions and briefs, researching the law and investigating the facts of her cases. She also uses her oral advocacy skills, appearing in court for trials as well as sentencing, suppression, detention and mental competency hearings. She comments, “I get to do work that suits my skills and at the same time is important and benefits the public good.” An added bonus of her cases is that their fact pattern is always stimulating. “All of the witnesses are characters, and every case is like a soap opera,” she says.
Smikle’s advice to HLS students is to pursue whatever interests them. “Don’t follow a particular path because it’s easy, you’re being recruited, or you have too much student loan debt,” Smikle remarks. Citing her own experiences, she advises that students need not consider debt an obstacle because HLS programs, like the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP), offer many opportunities to lessen the burden. “The most important thing is to love going to work in the morning,” she says.
ReNika Moore, HLS class of 2003, is currently the director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Economic Justice Group. The purpose of this division is to address racially driven obstacles to economic equality, as well as discrimination in employment and housing. The bulk of the division’s work is impact litigation, but they also engage in legislation, regulatory advocacy and public education. On a typical week, Ms. Moore is involved with some aspect of the litigation process such as brief writing, deposition, discovery, and trial preparation. She also works on some appellate cases and amicus briefs.
After graduating from law school, Ms. Moore clerked on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York for Judge Robert Carter, who had a prominent career as a civil rights lawyer, including working on Brown v. Board of Education. Ms. Moore then went to work for Outten & Golden, LLP, a plaintiff’s employment law firm before coming to the NAACP LDF.
When asked to give advice for current students looking to pursue a career in racial justice and public interest more broadly, Ms. Moore recommended being creative and flexible. She did not take the path she thought she would when she was in law school and she suggests that students be flexible in both the geographic areas as well as in subject areas they work in. She also emphasized that in law school students should stay involved in the subject areas or organizations they are interested in. During law school, Ms. Moore was an editor of the Civil Right Civil Liberties Law Review, was in the Criminal Justice Institute clinic, as well as interned with the NAACP LDF. Students should also build a network of people doing interesting things and stay connected with them so they can help identify paths and opportunities for you as you build your career.
For students interested in working in racial justice issues or the NAACP LDF in particular, Ms. Moore says that most attorneys in this area have done some work with the organization or partner organization during or after law school. Attorneys cannot come in “cold” but rather need to have a demonstrated commitment and experience in civil rights law. She says that professors, OPIA, and alumni are very helpful in connecting students interested in this area with organizations and opportunities.
Prepared by former 1L Section Rep Nora Mahlberg
“I thought my career was ruined,” recalled Ms. Elizabeth Westfall of the moment that she found out she did not receive a Skadden Fellowship. It was the fall of 1995, and she was 3L, planning to embark on a career as a civil rights attorney. Now it seemed liked her “life was over.” Thankfully, it wasn’t. To the contrary, since her graduation from HLS, Ms. Westfall has worked at two different law firms (the law firms now known as WilmerHale and Relman, Dane and Colfax, PLLC), two non-profits (Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Advancement Project), and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Back in 1995, however, her dreams of working to further women’s rights seemed impossible. She had spent her time at HLS taking courses such as Employment Discrimination and Voting Rights to gain a substantive foundation in civil rights. Although she believes that those courses were important, she cautions students against becoming too focused in one substantive area while in school. Instead, she emphasizes the importance of gaining skills, such as litigation, that are transferrable, and critical, to any legal practice area. Indeed, throughout her career, she found that her experience in litigation put her at an advantage vis-à-vis other lawyers. Many of her colleagues had never been in a courtroom.
After learning that she did not receive a Skadden fellowship, Ms. Westfall participated in “on-campus hiring” and was immediately hired by WilmerHale, despite never having summered there. She decided to move to Washington, DC to be with her fiancé. She concedes that today’s legal market is very different from the “boom” days of the 1990s. With firms cutting back and hiring fewer associates, “on-the-spot hiring” is not very likely. Therefore, she advises students to choose summer internships very carefully with an eye to their futures. For example, she suggests that students interested in civil rights split their summers between “major civil rights shop[s] and firms that give litigation experience.” She also encourages students to build relationships with both supervisors and peers because “it’s all about whom you know.” She believes that the people that students meet during their summers could have a large impact in the future, particularly in small practice areas. She also suggests that graduating students settle in the city in which they want to practice long-term in order to develop roots and network.
Ms. Westfall spent two years at WilmerHale doing traditional defense work for large corporations. She believes that during her time there, she received valuable training that laid the foundation for what set her apart from other attorneys involved with civil rights advocacy. After two years, however, she began searching for other opportunities in the DC area. She employed a strategy that she recommends students use while searching for jobs. She was broad in her search and reached out to people in the HLS network by “blindly calling alums.” By word-of-mouth, she learned of a staff attorney position with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. There, she began working on Fair Housing Act litigation, a field that was new to her. About a year into her work, one of her colleagues decided to start his own firm and asked her to join him. She spent the next five years working on fair housing and public accommodation issues at a firm then known as Relman & Associates. She gained “tons of litigation experience” and even did class action work.
By 2004, however, Ms. Westfall was ready to try something new again, preferably related to the upcoming election. Once again, through conversations and networking, she came across an ad for a position at Advancement Project conducting temporary grassroots organizing. She got the job, but it ended up being something entirely different. As it turned out, Advancement Project was looking for someone who could manage the organization’s litigation; the majority of young attorneys there were not experienced litigators. Ms. Westfall, on the other hand, believes that litigation expertise and the skills gained through litigation (strong research and writing skills) are key components of advocacy work. Indeed, once she started hiring attorneys at Advancement Project, candidates with litigation experience stood out to her. Still, she notes that litigation experience is not a prerequisite for doing advocacy work, particularly for those students who are interested in policy work and have no desire to engage in litigation.
Through her work at Advancement Project, Ms. Westfall also developed management skills—she learned how to “develop a work-plan, execute it, and hold others responsible.” She believes that students interested in advocacy work should cultivate such skills early in their careers because while traditional litigation creates its own work-plan, advocacy work does not. So having management experience and training sets candidates apart. Ms. Westfall worked her way up to Director of the Advancement Project’s Voter Protection Program.
In 2010, with the election of President Obama, Ms. Westfall decided that she wanted to work in the Justice Department and joined the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division as a trial attorney. In many ways, she has come full circle with this position as she is investigating and litigating her own cases. Yet, she is enjoying her work because she works with “some of the most talented voting rights lawyers in the country on high profile voting matters.”
She hopes that through learning about the variety of her experiences students come to understand that while “you cannot control your career,” “there are plenty of brilliant and talented people serving individuals, groups, and issues.”
Written by Former 1L Section Rep Tharuni Jayaraman
Since graduating from HLS in 2004, Michael Camilleri has worked across Latin America and in Washington D.C. with civil society and grassroots organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and government agencies on addressing issues of human rights in the Latin American region.
Michael came to law school with a passion for working on human rights issues in Latin America. At HLS, he was one of the founding members of HLS Advocates for Human Rights, which helped lay the groundwork for the creation of the Human Rights Clinic. As a law student, he spent a summer interning in Costa Rica with the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a leading NGO that litigates in the Inter-American human rights system. He also developed relationships with faculty who had worked on issues of human rights in Latin America, which proved instrumental in helping him gain the experience he desired in and after law school. After graduating, he secured a fellowship from the HLS Human Rights Program and went to Guatemala, where he worked with a coalition of civil society organizations on rule of law issues. After this fellowship, he returned to CEJIL as a staff attorney, where he litigated cases before the Inter-American Commission, Court of Human Rights. He spent five years at the organization working on cases from Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and the United States.
Next, Michael worked as a Senior Legal Advisor to the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Although based in Washington D.C., Michael continued to travel significantly throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in support of the Commission’s work. He drafted decisions of the Inter-American Commission in freedom of expression cases, acted as a policy advisor to the Special Rapporteur, and trained human rights defenders, journalists and judges.
Today, Michael serves on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. His portfolio covers Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada, and he provides policy guidance on the full range of issues affecting the region, such as trade, environment, citizen security, human rights, energy and development. Currently, he is leveraging his past experience to support the United States’ efforts to preserve the independence, autonomy and integrity of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has come under attack from certain governments in the hemisphere.. Although his role is mainly a policy role, Michael has found that his law degree has been directly applicable to projects involving legal issues such as treaty interpretation and international dispute resolution. More broadly, Michael has found the analytical framework he developed in law school to be particularly useful in his day-to-day work.
Michael advises current law students interested in international human rights work to gain as much practical experience as possible through clinics and experience working abroad over the summers and through post-graduate fellowships. He also notes that it can be useful to develop expertise in one region, along with relevant language skills; while it can be difficult as a law student, it is especially valuable to be able to point to an area that you really own and have concrete skills in.
Finally, he emphasizes that taking comparative law classes can be especially useful; much of what one encounters in the human rights field is transnational and comparative law, rather than pure public international law. Ultimately, the objective is to be a bridge between legal cultures and to be conversant in the legal systems of other countries; studying comparative law and spending time abroad will allow students to better understand foreign legal systems, which will prove instrumental in future work as human rights lawyers, researchers, and advocates.
Written by former 1L Section Rep Akhila Kolisetty
August 6, 2013 | 1 Comment
As Executive Secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Jennifer Cannistra heads the policy development and regulations office and plays a role in countless decisions that affect the health and well-being of all Americans. A 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School, Ms. Cannistra has worked on health policy with the Obama administration since the 2008 election. Prior to that, she worked at a Washington, DC law firm in its education practice group, clerked for the Honorable Faith S. Hochberg, D.N.J, and worked on the Obama campaign.
Ms. Cannistra’s defining experience at HLS was the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, where she primarily represented elderly and disabled clients facing eviction. Working over forty hours a week her second and third year, she made reasonable accommodation requests and coordinated with various state and local agencies to help her clients get necessary support and services to live independently.
Prior to law school, Ms. Cannistra’s background was in education: she has a master’s degree in international and comparative education, worked as a volunteer teacher, and interned at the Department of Education. While in law school, she did not expect that she would end up doing health policy. She emphasized that although students do not need to find their niche in law school, it is important to be flexible and remain open to different opportunities. Either in the classroom or during an internship, she recommends throwing yourself into your work and responsibilities. Even if the assignments are not legal in nature, people will notice your enthusiasm, remember that you are willing to be a team player, and ultimately give you more responsibility and more opportunities to highlight your abilities.
Ms. Cannistra joined the Obama campaign in September 2007. She worked in seven different states during the primaries. During the general election, she served as the Pennsylvania state policy director, where she became more involved in health policy. After the election, the campaign formed policy transition teams where small working groups teed up the incoming administration’s policy priorities in particular areas; Ms. Cannistra joined the health policy team. She wanted to work on health policy because her work with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau illustrated how quality health care can significantly improve people’s lives. Post-inauguration, Ms. Cannistra worked in the White House Office of Health Reform. Once the Affordable Care Act became law in March 2010, Ms. Cannistra moved over to HHS to work on implementation.
Ms. Cannistra recommended that students interested in health policy take advantage of the alumni connections at the law school by talking to people who hold positions that seem interesting, challenging, and rewarding. She noted that while the opportunity to have these types of conversations exists beyond law school, it is much easier while you are still a student. Health policy is a very complicated and challenging field, covering a wide range of issues, and she says she loves that her colleagues are so smart, passionate, and dedicated. She believes the field is also especially rewarding because your work helps enable people to live healthier and longer lives.
Written by former 1L Section Rep Diana Calla
July 30, 2013 | Leave a Comment
Adam Szubin (HLS ’99) is the Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He has served in that position since 2006. OFAC is in charge of implementing all U.S. economic sanctions, which include targeted sanctions against non-state actors such as terrorist organizations and narco-traffickers, as well as state sanctions against Iran, Syria, Sudan and other countries.
Mr. Szubin’s position at OFAC is formally a policy position, not a legal one. Despite this, he said that it would be difficult to do his job without being a lawyer; a job which involves working to issue new regulations and licenses, as well as designating new targets for asset freezing and drafting executive orders. He has worked closely with the counsel’s office at Treasury, but often feels that his own legal training is very helpful in being able to effectively direct OFAC.
While in law school, Mr. Szubin knew he wanted to work in government generally, but did not think he would end up in finance and economic policy. He devoted significant time to serving on the Board of Student Advisors and participating in the Ames competition. He felt that these experiences, working in small groups on specific projects, were great training for real legal practice situations he faced in his work following law school.
After graduating from HLS, Mr. Szubin clerked for a year for Judge Ronald Gilman on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, then was accepted into the Department of Justice Honors Program and worked in the Federal Programs branch of the Civil Division. At first, he handled cases involving religion law, but then gradually became involved with terrorist financing cases after 9/11. This work led to a detail assignment as Counsel in the Deputy Attorney General’s office, where he coordinated terrorist finance litigation for DOJ as a whole. Mr. Szubin’s supervisor in this role was Stuart Levey, who in 2004 was named the first Undersecretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Mr. Szubin followed Mr. Levey over to Treasury as a senior advisor, then was named director of OFAC in 2006.
In these positions, Mr. Szubin has found that what he learned in specific courses like Administrative Law and Federal Courts has been useful, but the most valuable takeaway from his legal education has been the strong general analytical skills he developed at HLS. He also emphasized that all of his positions in government came about because he was open to all opportunities, not just those in a specific path or subject matter.
Mr. Szubin stressed that, in addition to being open to a variety of opportunities, working in government often requires a willingness to start off in a job outside one’s area of interest. He felt that it was much easier to change jobs and move around once inside the government rather than applying to jobs before getting in the door. He also said that even for those students who are interested in policy work, it is valuable to practice law for a few years as he did at DOJ. He felt that this experience provided him essential training and helped make him into a lawyer, not just a person with a law degree who passed the bar.
Written by former 1L Section Rep Aaron Blacksberg
“The future of America as a major world power and as a decent place to live hinges on a strong middle class,” says Lela Klein, speaking about the stakes of her job as in-house counsel for a union. “And the future of the middle class in America hinges in no small part on the future of the labor movement.” It was that belief that led her to seek the legal fellowship at the SEIU (Service Employees International Union, the fastest-growing union in America with about two million members) in her 3L year. She deferred that fellowship for a year to work at James and Hoffman, a leading labor law firm in Washington D.C, where she worked on union-side litigation. “I found out that litigation wasn’t for me.” She wanted closer proximity to the client and more reasonable hours.
Because Lela worked for the SEIU as an organizer before coming to law school, she knew it was a union she could get behind. After that fellowship, she took a job in Dayton, Ohio—where she hails from originally—as in-house counsel for the IUE-CWA, the Industrial Division of the Communication Workers of America. Her current work environment is quite different from her experience at the SEIU headquarters in D.C., where she worked in a legal department of fifteen to twenty attorneys. At the IUE-CWA headquarters, Lela is the only lawyer in an office of fifteen people. She works most closely with the union staff representatives, who assist the local union chapters in collective bargaining. As in-house counsel, Lela’s main responsibility is to service these staff reps with support, legal research, reviewing drafts of documents, and occasionally filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. She travels in the field for this work about once a month.
But one of the things Lela enjoys about working as in-house counsel is the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects. In addition to supporting staff reps, she has recently drafted a position statement for a NLRB appeal, done research for a Fifth Circuit case in which the IUE-CWA is intervening on behalf of the union party, and helped conduct a training for their Michigan members on how the state’s recent “Right to Work” legislation will affect them.
Lela’s favorite part of the job, though, is working directly with the union’s members. “Our members are great, and a lot of fun,” she says. She’s motivated by helping hardworking people. “These are good middle class jobs because people have fought to make them good middle class jobs,” Lela says. She takes pride in being on the front lines of that fight.
It is no secret that unions currently face grave challenges, but Lela sees reasons for optimism. In the four years she’s worked in the labor field, she’s seen a change toward a progressive movement that works more closely with its allies, such as civil rights groups and environmental groups (like the BlueGreen Alliance) to build a powerful coalition. For instance, while Lela was at the SEIU, the union filed an amicus brief in the Defense of Marriage Act litigation. But with unions under attack on so many fronts, she believes the labor movement has never been more in need of smart, committed people. “If you want to go somewhere where you’re really needed, come on over to the labor movement.”
Written by former 1L Section Rep Chad Baker
When Dan Gordon entered Harvard Law School in 1996, he knew that he wanted to pursue education civil rights work. As a law student, Gordon was able to participate in a variety of activities to help him explore other possible career choices including the Criminal Justice Institute, Harvard Law Review, and Ames Moot Court. Yet upon graduation, he remained committed to a career in education and has done so through working with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, as a teacher in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), and through working at DCPS’ central office. Now, as DCPS’ Deputy Chief Academic Officer, Gordon supervises 120 employees, oversees a $30 million budget, and engages crucial education issues on a daily basis.
Prior to entering law school, Gordon taught at an elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia through AmeriCorps. He came to Harvard Law School hoping “to try to remove some of the institutional barriers [his] students were facing in their lives.” Through the Office of Public Interest Advising, Gordon learned about a summer opportunity in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and spent his 1L summer working on education civil rights issues. This internship allowed Gordon to stay in touch with the original reasons he went to law school
After graduation, Gordon clerked for one year then returned to the same DOJ office where he served as a trial attorney for five years. Ultimately, he realized that while he “loved the issues in education” he was less enthused about the “day-to-day tasks of lawyering.” Deciding that the most important contemporary education reform work was happening in classrooms and school districts rather than courtrooms and federal bureaucracies, Gordon switched careers and became a high school English teacher in a D.C. public school for three years. In addition to helping prepare individual students for success, Gordon wanted to work “on the front lines,” so his eventual work in a policy role would be informed by first-hand experience.
Gordon now supervises early childhood education, college and career readiness, support for English language learners, and out-of-school time programming. He recently completed the two-year Broad Residency in Urban Education, which is dedicated to helping bring people from one career into a career in urban education management.
The career shift has been very fulfilling for Gordon. “Life is entirely too short to spend so much of your time doing things you don’t find meaningful,” he said. He explained that it is very important for his work to be “mission-driven” and that he appreciates being surrounded by people who share this mission and sense of urgency. “Each day I am reminded of why I am doing this and how much more there is to accomplish, ” Gordon added.
Gordon noted that law school offers a tremendous amount of opportunities, and it is important for students to explore them. He explained that “part of the allure of law school is that there are so many doors that open…it is important when you are in law school to explore the doors” and to figure out what you do and do not want to do. However, he cautioned students not to “lose sight of why they applied in the first place.” He encourages current students to consider non-legal careers, as he feels strongly that his legal education and experience contribute all the time to his effectiveness in his current work.
Gordon is looking for dedicated people who are looking to do something meaningful with their lives to help close the achievement gap in DCPS. Students should feel free to reach out to him with any questions.
Written by Former 1L Section Rep Deena Greenberg