Splitting with the DOJ casts new light on lush firm life


Setting aside the political partisanship and recent electoral history, the day Attorney General John Ashcroft hosted the annual summer DOJ intern event, college undergraduates, law clerks and other professional degree candidates from divisions as varied as Commercial Litigation, Computer Crimes, Environmental and Natural Resources, the FBI and INS thronged into the inner halls of Main Justice, filling every fold-up chair in the Grand Hall. It was the first and only time the DOJ interns of 2001 had gathered together en masse, and the ethnic and cultural diversity was at least as rich as the opportunities they were each pursuing in federal government. AG Ashcroft spoke for a few minutes; he expressed his thanks for the work we had done and ended with a passionate, if well-worn, plug for a career in public service. He responded to questions, and then disappeared behind the cathedral of blue velvet curtains separating his high-level world from that of the next generation.

For those of us who had split our summers with private-sector firms, the contrast was pronounced. There was no fanfare, no exquisitely catered food or drink. The agenda was not sprinkled with an enticing array of name-branded goodies, and the cost of admission was the hectic entrance through the usual security checkpoints.

Ah … government. As someone who had worked in city government for three years before entering law school, I had developed a strong belief in the ability of government to undertake important and crucial tasks. For me, the DOJ Summer Honors program was a no-brainer option, and I was eager to experience the junction of law and public service.

My clerkship reaffirmed my perception of government. The training and experience gained as a government employee are unique products of the trial-by-fire atmosphere and the particular type of mentorship offered in the public sector. The brief encounter with my fellow colleagues in the Hall of Justice made me even more excited about the prospects of public service. One could not help but feel empowered by the faces and chatter filling up the room — interesting, idealistic and very bright people, each of whom had forgone the cherries of the market and each of whom aimed to fulfill their governmental roles with intelligence and zeal.

This is not to say that all good and exciting work gets done by public servants. However, life in a private firm and the life of one pursuing the aims of the United States government differ in substantial ways. For example, the word “green” in the private sector invokes comforting notions of extinguishing one’s law school debt, and of having the wherewithal to choose and create a lifestyle of one’s own. In the public sector, “green” is used more frequently to describe the recently admitted-to-practice trial attorney doing her third trial proceeding in her first three months as a prosecutor. Both experiences offer the opportunity to interact and work with smart, dedicated people and the skills that come with being a professional in the service of clients are to some extent transferable between the public and private sectors. Inevitably, the grounds for comparison devolve into a question so personal that the existing roadmaps prove inadequate. One can only know by doing, and splitting the summer allowed me to move the decision-making process from the rational consideration of pros and cons to a truly gut feeling about what, at this time in my life, would be the best road to travel.

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