Interviewed by Carol Fox Phillips
Mytrang Nguyen is an attorney and program counsel at the Legal Services Corporation in Washington, D.C. The Legal Services Corporation is the largest federal funder of civil legal aid organizations in the United States. Her career path has focused on public interest law.
Tell me how you got started along the path that led you to this place in your career.
I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., a second generation Vietnamese American. I was fortunate to grow up in a diverse community and had opportunities to engage in community service and volunteering at a young age. This gave me an early appreciation for the intrinsic rewards of volunteering and public service which has shaped and guided every aspect of my career in public interest law.
Was there something that influenced you in law school to move into the area in which you are currently working? If so, what was it?
I went to law school knowing that I wanted to go into public interest law to work with disenfranchised communities. As a 1L, I volunteered with a women’s refugee project that was housed in a civil legal services program. I felt a deep sense of kinship and purpose working alongside such dedicated attorneys and law students.
My law school also had a co-op program which places students, beginning in their second year, in full-time legal work with alternating academic trimesters. I used these co-op placements as an opportunity to get experience and training in different legal settings. I clerked for a trial court judge, in a criminal defense and civil rights firm, with the felony team at the Boston district attorney’s office, and in a boutique litigation firm. These varied experiences gave me a broad view of what lawyers do and as a young person I also began to appreciate the deeply networked legal community where I was getting my start. In a few short years, this had a snowball effect.
Tell me about how you found your first job after law school.
I had a great experience with the judge with whom I clerked in law school and he suggested that I apply for the Massachusetts Superior Court clerkship program after law school. It is the highest trial court in the state and the judicial law clerks worked in a pool and “rode the circuit” throughout the state to different courthouses. For the year that I clerked, I broadened my experience and perspective to one that was statewide, working from one end of the state to the other. I worked with multiple judges and learned the culture of each community, courthouse, and bar throughout the state. It was, again, a wonderful opportunity to broaden my network and perspective.
How did you find your next job/opportunity?
It felt very serendipitous. The state attorney general’s office was recruiting for an Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division. These positions are usually reserved for attorneys with years of legal experience. This particular position, however, also served as the Asian Pacific American Community Liaison for the office which carried the responsibility of improving access to the office and to law enforcement by the Asian immigrant community in the state. Even though I was a newer law graduate, because of my background and law school clerkship choices, I came with experience in litigation, law enforcement, working with immigrants, and working for a number of trial judges and courthouses throughout the state. It was a great fit, made even better under the leadership of the Attorney General at the time, Scott Harshbarger, who is very committed to public service and access to justice issues.
What helped you early in your career to become more knowledgeable/gain skills/experience success?
Something that has helped me tremendously was maintaining a broad view and perspective of the legal community early-on. I had opportunities to work substantively with so many different kinds of lawyers: prosecutors, criminal defense, plaintiffs, defense, government, and legal aid.
I also volunteered with a diverse range of nonprofits and served on a number of nonprofit boards of directors. A lot of people do not consider this, but when you are a nonprofit board member, you have the opportunity to work substantively as a peer with an executive director and other community leaders.
What have been some of the critical turning points in your career, including both successes and disappointments?
One of the biggest turning points for me was leaving Boston for a job at Equal Justice Works, a national nonprofit in Washington, D.C. It was an excellent opportunity, but a challenging transition for three reasons. First, I was leaving a rich network of close friends, colleagues, and professional contacts in Massachusetts. Again, early in my career I had a broad network from law school and working in a statewide capacity as a clerk and assistant attorney general. From a network and relationships standpoint, it was almost like starting all-over again as a new lawyer when I moved back to D.C. Second, the new job and move gave me the opportunity to manage a national fellowship program for new and aspiring public interest lawyers which is important and exciting work, but that meant stepping away from the actual practice of law. This is a big career shift and choice, if you stick with it. And finally, because I was at a national nonprofit, my professional contacts became lawyers who were working in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Gainesville, Missoula, and New Orleans. This provided me with an even broader perspective, but less opportunity to use my law degree to make a difference in my own back yard and community which is something that is very important to me. Once again, pro bono and board service gave me a vehicle to develop and maintain skills and new networks that were different from my full-time job.
Have you ever stepped off your career path for a period of time during your career, or made a significant career change? What was that change, and how did you do it?
I left the practice of law over 10 years ago and I have not looked back with regret. I’ve had the opportunity to support hundreds of law students and new lawyers who are committed to using their law degrees to create a more just society. I was part of a team that helped to bring new capacity and legal talent to Gulf Coast states to address the overwhelming needs of low-income people in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And I have had the opportunity to work with visionary leaders in the public interest community; all while building and refining my skills in public speaking and communication, project and nonprofit management, financial management, strategy development and implementation, and leadership. The only regret is that I left the practice of law before truly achieving a significant depth of legal experience in a single substantive area like employment discrimination, immigration law, or urban planning. I still think about that from time to time and stay open to ideas about what my second career could be!
How has the public interest legal community changed in the time that you have been practicing? How has it impacted your particular area of practice and your own work?
With almost 20 years in the public interest legal community, I’ve been encouraged to see the mainstreaming of two things: loan repayment assistance programs (LRAP) for public interest lawyers and pro bono service for private attorneys. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work in two organizations which played a significant role in making this happen. Equal Justice Works, www.equaljusticeworks.org, has led the field in encouraging LRAP programs nationally as a vehicle to make public interest work more financially feasible for new attorneys. The Pro Bono Institute, www.probonoinst.org, was the first to make the business case for law firm pro bono and with the Association for Corporate Counsel, has lead the movement to increase pro bono in corporate legal departments. Ultimately and on a very macro level, these two developments have expanded the available legal talent and resources available to low-income people and I am happy to have had the opportunity to work with the leadership and staff at both organizations.
If you were advising a young attorney today who was entering your field, what advice would you give them about how to find a job, how to develop their expertise, and how to be successful?
I would advise any new attorney, public interest or otherwise, to have what psychologist Carol Dweck describes as a growth mindset. Stay curious, have resilience and seek feedback. I seek feedback from trusted friends, peers, and mentors as a way to take honest stock in my strengths and areas for professional or leadership development. Also, take ownership of your professional development and drive it. Working in nonprofits, there were never a lot of resources for the kind of supervision and talent development you see in the private sector. I always had a clear idea of areas I wanted to maintain or develop and constantly searched for formal and informal opportunities to do so. I decided to put myself through a nonprofit executive management program at a public policy school when I was thinking about getting an expensive MBA ten years ago. I consulted for IOLTA foundations to evaluate their legal aid grantees, when I wanted to learn about and establish relationships with different funders in the national legal aid community. I have been very self-directed about my professional and leadership development because I figure, who wants it more than me? That said, I also seek and take the advice of friends and mentors who know me personally and have my best interests in mind. After all, we all have blind spots, too!
What are some of the biggest challenges that you see facing new lawyers today?
This is a worrisome legal market and economic environment for new graduates and lawyers. I was actually heartened recently to see that the law schools at UC Hastings Law and George Washington University are decreasing the size of their incoming classes over the next few years. As a person steeped in trends in the public interest legal community, I lose sleep over the data that shows a yawning gap between legal aid attorneys who are approaching retirement with over 30 years of experience and the trickle of public interest attorneys and emerging leaders coming in after them. I wonder whether experienced attorneys ready for a change from the private sector can fill the gap, but there’s a steep learning curve working in low-income communities and what about the new lawyers? I don’t have the answers yet, but I see a huge challenge and potential opportunity in matching the many newer law graduates and transitioning attorneys with the tremendous need for legal assistance in low-income communities.