BY ANGELA YINGLING
On December 5th, Pound 335 overflowed with students eager to learn more about life on Capitol Hill from a distinguished panel of young HLS alumni. The panel’s five guests, all recipients of a Heymann Fellowship for their work in federal public service, and moderator Jim Flug, (HLS ’63), Chief Counsel to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, discussed their experiences working for members of Congress and Congressional committees. They also gave the potential future staffers some practical advice about how to land a job in the nation’s capital and what to expect once there.
Each panelist spoke for a few minutes about their own background, detailing which experiences and professional relationships aided them in their search for their present positions. All of the staffers cited internships and networking as absolutely instrumental in helping them get their foot into that rotunda, but each panelist’s story had its own unique history and focus. Peg McGlinch, (HLS ’01), the legislative director for Representative Richard Neal (D-MA), recounted five frustrating months of looking for a job after graduating from law school. She was rewarded for her hard work when she was offered three different positions on the same day. Jeff Baran, (HLS ’01), counsel for the House Committee on Government Reform, remembers combining some serious networking with a strategy of “papering the world” with resumes before landing his first job on the Hill. All of the panelists expressed gratitude for the people who helped open the Congressional doors for them. But as Mike McCarthy, (HLS ’03), counsel for the House Committee on Government Reform as well, put it, “you don’t need to be the vice-president’s son to find a job”-networking opportunities abound in internships, on-the-campaign trials, and the large HLS alumni pool.
The panelists spoke briefly on the impact that their Harvard Law School education has on their current jobs. There was general agreement that the extremely technical, legal aspects of their education were less important than the general skills honed during their law school days. Congressional staffers are often asked to prepare memos, speeches, and op-ed pieces for their bosses, and the panelists agreed that the ability to structure a sound argument is invaluable in these situations. Sharon Kelly, (HLS/KSG ’04), who has been working in Senator Harry Reid’s (D-NV) communication office since last April, said that her job was probably the “least lawyer-like,” but that she has found both of her degrees relevant to the type of work she does today. None of the panelists, nor the moderator, could deny that the Harvard Law degree in and of itself is a real advantage when applying for jobs on the Hill. According to Flug, “people assume you’re competent when you possess that HLS degree.”
Such competency is certainly evident in the work done by these young alums. Even though the hours are long, and the politics can be frustrating at times, all of the panelists expressed real affection for the work they are doing. They shared stories about times they felt that their actions really made a difference in the lives of American citizens. McGlinch spoke of the time she helped to secure some federal funding for a smaller non-profit organization in Nevada, which was facing financial difficulties as charitable contributions were siphoned off to more headline-making causes. Michael Zamore, (HLS ’99), a policy advisor for Representative Patrick J. Kennedy (D-RI), mentioned receiving thankful-sometimes even tearful-phone calls from constituents who were pleased and overwhelmed with the efforts made by Congressmen Kennedy and his staff in the area of mental health advocacy.
After the panelists answered a few broad questions put forth by the moderator, the students were able to pose their own queries. Topics ranged from the differences between working for an individual congressman and a congressional committee to the possibility of switching between the public and private sectors. Moderator Flug was able to comment extensively on this last issue, having worked in all three branches of government at one point in his life, and also in private practice for over three decades. The panelists cited the frequency with which lawyers moved between the two worlds, though noting that some people remain in public service for their entire careers. Working for a private firm will certainly not bar a lawyer from landing a job on Capitol Hill, said McGlinch, but she cautioned that the skills acquired in a law firm, especially during the first few years, are often very different from the skills necessary to function effectively as a Congressional staffer. She warned against working for a few years at a firm and then expecting to land a higher-up job on the Hill. It is certainly possible to get a job, she said, “but don’t be surprised if you are working under someone with a B.A.”
Interestingly, the panel was composed entirely of Democratic staffers, who expressed both frustrations and hope to the members of their minority party. “It has been difficult to keep up [our] spirits” at times throughout the past few years, said Zamore. But he and the other panelists spoke of finding comfort in the small victories fought, and sometimes won, each day on Capitol Hill. After all, as McCarthy said, “Where else do visitors come from all over the world to see the place where you work? It’s kind of inspiring, to say the least.”