Mike Keyser, a 2003 graduate of Seattle University School of Law, is chief executive officer and general counsel for the American Samoa Power Authority. He lives in Pago, Pago, American Samoa, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Do not limit your job search. Casting a wide net in terms of field, public versus private, and location can have surprising and beneficial returns. My career path is an example of taking a risk and receiving an uncommon reward. This article is an open invitation for you to join me.
Two years after law school, I discovered an opening with the American Samoa Office of the Attorney General, and they made me an offer I could not refuse. In 2005, my wife and I sold our house and cars, put most of our possessions in storage, and off we went, sight unseen, to American Samoa. Stupid? Risky? Perhaps. But it was a leap of faith that I will never regret. I have gained an incredible amount of legal experience in a short period of time, made some good friends, and traveled to some truly amazing places.
I am always entertained by the responses I get when I tell statesiders that I live in American Samoa. My favorite response is “Oh, yes, American Somalia.” Now I have been gone for a while, but I am pretty sure I would have heard if we colonized Africa. American Samoa is a chain of six islands located in the heart of Polynesia, about 2,600 miles south of Hawaii. About 70,000 people inhabit the islands, and most live and work in and around the capital city of Pago Pago, pronounced Pahngo Pahngo , located on the island Tutuila. Tutuila is only 19 miles long, no more than 4 miles wide at any point, and has a speed limit of 25 mph. There are no stoplights, house numbers, or street names. Island fever? Sometimes!
They say of the Pacific that the ocean is so blue that the sky gets jealous. When we need to escape the, ahem, hustle and bustle of Pago, there are plenty of neighboring islands to visit. Ofu, in the American Samoa chain, is home to one of the top unspoiled beaches in the world, a three-mile stretch of palm-fringed white sand and turquoise water, and, oddly enough, a U.S. national park. The neighboring independent country of Samoa, formerly Western Samoa, is only a 30-minute plane flight away and is fast becoming a tourist mecca for its laid-back lifestyle, tropical surroundings, and bustling handicrafts market. Of course, relatively close are New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Bora Bora, and Tahiti if you get bored.
The American Samoa legal system is proudly made in the USA. The legislature has a lower and upper house, collectively called the “Fono.” The judiciary is composed of a district court and the High Court. American Samoa is the only territory outside of the federal district courts, which creates a weird legal vacuum. Although some federal statutes apply here, there is nowhere to enforce them! And appeals of High Court decisions must be taken in the form of a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. There is a growing movement towards American Samoa joining the 9th Circuit. Legally it is an interesting place to work because when local law, which is sparse, is not on point, all fifty states are equally considered persuasive authority, so the possibilities are endless.
American Samoa is ideal for a young lawyer looking for good, practical legal experience and a truly unique life adventure. The local bar rules allow reciprocity with any state, provided you have taken and passed a state bar exam, which is good news for a recent graduate dreading another exam. The standard package offered to government attorneys is a $45,000 to $50,000 salary, a two-year renewable contract, a government house (your rent: $100/month), airfare and travel expenses for immediate family to and from the island (beginning and end of contract), a shipping allowance for personal effects, and five weeks paid vacation annually. The Office of the Attorney General and Public Defender’s Office have the most regular job vacancies, but other opportunities exist. I am Chief Executive Officer & General Counsel for the American Samoa Power Authority, a quasi-governmental entity of the American Samoa Government, which provides electricity, water, sewer, and solid waste services to all of the people of American Samoa.
As for a personal life, there is a sizeable “association” of like-minded young lawyers from across the United States who all work for the government in some capacity, whether it is for the attorney general, public defender, or an in-house agency. Some of these young lawyers come and go, but I have developed friendships with some lawyers that will last far beyond our time together on the island. Heard enough? So what are you waiting for?