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July 15, 2023 Feature

Ten Takeaways for a Successful Career—A Spotlight on Janet Levine

Judge Rachel L. Pickering

At the 2019 Criminal Justice Section Fall Institute, the Women in Criminal Justice (WCJ) Task Force gave a presentation about the listening sessions they had conducted with women criminal lawyers. Part of the presentation involved dividing the audience and Task Force members into breakout groups. Each group was given different scenarios that illustrated the persistent challenges facing women practitioners. The groups were then asked to brainstorm for possible solutions.

Sitting at our group’s table were many experienced attorneys, each of whom provided valuable and helpful answers. Yet among these attorneys was one person who stood out. Speaking in a mild, deliberate voice, this individual continually gave concise and insightful answers. Quietly, she listened and then, when appropriate, provided clear and thoughtful responses. Each time this attorney spoke, our group found ourselves nodding in agreement. Anyone familiar with this attorney and her astute answers would know that she was drawing from many years of practice as both a successful trial and an appellate attorney. That person was Janet Levine.

Given her considerable accomplishments, it is little wonder that Ms. Levine was able to contribute such insights to our small group discussion. She has been a pioneer for many practitioners in criminal justice, particularly in white-collar crime. In her extensive career, Ms. Levine has worked on several noteworthy cases including government investigations, public corruption, and a foreign espionage case. She was even one of the first defense attorneys to take a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act case to trial.

While the practice of law is demanding, Janet Levine shows how one achieves a successful and rewarding legal career. If we reflect on individuals like Ms. Levine, we see a person whose career illustrates the many possible trajectories for success. Consequently, a spotlight on her career provides us with 10 takeaways for attaining a fulfilling career.

To begin, for many attorneys, the formula for a noteworthy career usually involves taking that initial bold step after completing law school. For Ms. Levine, it was a law professor from her law school, Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who suggested that she apply for a federal appellate clerkship with Hon. Arthur L. Alarcon. Recently appointed, Judge Alarcon was the first Hispanic serving on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This was a crucial step for Ms. Levine. She followed this advice and took one of the first leaps in her legal practice. Soon after graduation and completing the bar exam, she began clerking for Judge Alarcon.

With this federal clerkship, Ms. Levine began to hone her writing and research skills while she learned the many nuances of appellate practice. Even more importantly, Ms. Levine found a supportive mentor. Judge Alarcon actively championed his clerks’ budding careers. He would invite them to speaking and social engagements and made a point to introduce them to members of the bar.

Judge Alarcon’s energetic mentorship not only helped to open doors for Ms. Levine, but he also taught her to have a voice. He had a practice of intently listening to the law clerks’ legal analysis in a way that told the young attorneys that their voices mattered. By encouraging them and showing them that their legal viewpoints should be heard and considered, he helped build their self-reliance.

Certainly, for a young lawyer, this type of support from an esteemed mentor makes a world of difference. This bolstered Ms. Levine’s confidence to draft persuasive legal arguments. As a result, she soon had the resolve to develop her own theory of a case and not simply respond to opposing counsel’s arguments. Ms. Levine would need these traits in her next career move.

This brings us to the first two key takeaways from Ms. Levine’s impactful career. The first is critical:

Follow advice that takes you out of your comfort zone.

Seek out counsel that emboldens you to take that first step out of law school or early in your legal career.

The second takeaway undoubtedly may be harder to achieve but is invaluable:

Find a workplace where your voice matters.

Beginning one’s legal career with an encouraging supervisor or law partner who tells you that your legal viewpoints should be heard and considered is unquestionably empowering. This practice, moreover, instills a sense of self-confidence in one’s own legal abilities—a critical component for a young attorney.

Following her federal clerkship, Ms. Levine worked in the Central District of California’s Federal Public Defender office as a Deputy Federal Public Defender. In her third year at Loyola Law School, Ms. Levine had a glimpse at what criminal defense practice entailed during an internship with that same office. Starting as a practicing attorney with a manageable criminal caseload and sufficient resources, Ms. Levine began to focus intently on her criminal cases. With guidance from supportive work colleagues, she learned about representing various clients and the ins and outs of the courtroom. During this two-and-half-year period, she took about 20 cases to trial.

At this stage in her career, Ms. Levine had to quickly develop effective advocacy skills. The need to present persuasive arguments to the court was no more evident than at a defendant’s sentencing hearing. At that time, federal sentencing guidelines had not yet been established. (Federal sentencing guidelines went into effect on November 1, 1987.) As a result, federal district court judges had wide discretion in sentencing defendants.

To achieve the best outcomes for her clients, Ms. Levine swiftly learned how to present convincing arguments. With each case, she built upon her knowledge of crafting persuasive arguments within each respective court. Given how much was at stake at sentencing, namely, whether her clients would serve probation or serve additional months and/or years in prison, Ms. Levine worked hard to prepare a case for her clients and endeavored to put forth her best work.

These experiences show that if you are called on to do your very best, you will rise to the occasion. And, in turn, your abilities will expand to meet the many challenges and difficulties found in the practice of law. The third takeaway is:

Seek out a position that demands your best work.

The next step in Ms. Levine’s career was a move to private practice and eventually partnership. From 1984 to the present, Ms. Levine has handled litigation cases on securities, health care, tax fraud, public corruption, and espionage. During this time, Ms. Levine focused on perfecting her litigation skills at all stages of a case, including pretrial, grand jury, trial, and appeal.

Periodically, Ms. Levine’s work allowed her to display both her courtroom and appellate skills. She understood that her efforts at the district court level would be instrumental at the appellate level. Sometimes her cases went to the Ninth Circuit, and at least one case went to the US Supreme Court. Before these cases were heard on appeal, however, Ms. Levine worked to develop and frame promising legal issues. Additionally, she saw the importance of “owning your cases”—that is, putting in the time to review the case’s extensive discovery, speaking with potential witnesses, and thoroughly investigating possible defenses.

Ms. Levine’s focus on becoming a more formidable defense attorney went hand-in-hand with becoming an authority in white-collar litigation defense. Her example shows how developing the required skills requires dedication and hard work. This persistence and concentration on advancing her skill set prepared Ms. Levine for the next two significant cases in her career.

The fourth takeaway relates to having patience as you concentrate on developing and improving your skills as an attorney:

Take time in your career to sharpen and broaden your skill set.

While Ms. Levine has handled many significant cases, her defense work in an espionage case stands out. The novelty of this case cannot be overstated. In 2003, Katrina Leung was charged with allegations of espionage. She was accused of covertly working for the Chinese government while also serving as an FBI asset. Along with Leung, the government charged Leung’s handler, an FBI special agent. This agent had worked with Leung for 18 years. He knew many details about her work, how it assisted the government, and the extent to which she had been loyal to the United States. Unquestionably, the agent was a critical defense witness for Leung and could possibly provide exculpatory information.

Initially, the government charged the agent with five felony charges, including allegations of depriving of honest services, wire fraud, and removal of national defense information. A year later, in May 2004, the government and the agent entered into a plea agreement whereby he agreed to plead to a minor offense. Notably, the plea agreement included explicit language that the agent could not discuss the case with either Leung or her counsel. This agreement effectively prevented Ms. Levine and the defense team from interacting with the agent. United States v. Leung, 351 F. Supp. 2d 992, 993 (2005).

It became evident to Ms. Levine that with this action, the government was interfering with the defense’s case. The defense subsequently moved to dismiss the charges against Leung on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. The government responded that the plea agreement’s terms were ambiguous, there was no intention to prevent or restrict the agent from speaking with the defense, and any alleged problem could be cured.

After the government’s response, Ms. Levine and the defense team made a strategic move: They subpoenaed the government documents relating to the agent’s plea agreement. This request included any correspondence and emails regarding the agreement. The court ordered the subpoenaed documents to be turned over to the court for an in-camera review. An email statement from a government attorney was among the submitted materials. The email described the intent behind the plea agreement, including a desire to thwart the defense—a clear violation of Leung’s fundamental due process rights. With this admission, the court ruled in Leung’s favor and dismissed the charges against her due to prosecutorial misconduct. The court stated that Leung “has suffered substantial prejudice as a result of the prosecutor’s due process violation.” Id. at 997.

This case highlights the importance of turning over every stone. With this new information—only discovered through the determination of Ms. Levine and the Leung team—the court became aware of the government’s intention with the plea agreement. The fifth takeaway is clear:

Be thorough and always investigate your cases from the ground up.

Another noteworthy case Ms. Levine handled was a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) case. At that time, very few attorneys had defended an FCPA case at trial. Ms. Levine became one of them. In 2010, the government charged a manufacturing company and the company’s CEO and CFO with violating the FCPA. They were accused of paying bribes to two officials at a Mexican state-owned electric company. They were charged with conspiracy to violate the FCPA in addition to substantive violations of the FCPA. United States v. Aguilar, 831 F. Supp. 2d 1180, 1182 (C.D. Cal. 2011). From the start, the defendants claimed their innocence and fought the charges. Ms. Levine defended the company’s CFO.

Continually, Ms. Levine and the defense team challenged many of the government’s actions, including the search warrants and the grand jury testimony. They also moved to dismiss the case. The district court denied the defense motions and the case proceeded to trial. Just before the jury began its deliberations, the defense filed another motion to dismiss. While that motion was pending, the jury returned guilty verdicts that convicted the defendants. After these verdicts, the government notified the court of a transcript from an FBI special agent’s grand jury testimony that it had not produced for the defense—which was in direct violation of the district court’s earlier orders. The district court granted the defense motion, noting the many instances of misconduct. Id. at 1206. Exercising its supervisory powers, the district court vacated the defendants’ convictions and dismissed the superseding indictment with prejudice.

Most importantly, this case showcases an essential characteristic, namely, staying the course even after the jury has rendered a guilty verdict. The sixth takeaway embraces persistence in advocating for one’s client:

Be tenacious throughout the course of your client’s case.

Defending someone accused of espionage or of violating the FCPA undoubtedly requires hours of research. To handle such an intense case, an interest in learning all pertinent facts and not simply making assumptions is essential. In other words, the more that was demanded of Ms. Levine, the more she had to learn. For these types of cases, being inquisitive and having an innate desire to learn undeniably assisted Ms. Levine in preparing a defense.

In general, a keen sense of curiosity undoubtedly allows an attorney to successfully handle many diverse cases. Consequently, the seventh takeaway encourages inquisitiveness:

Stay curious and never stop learning.

Notably, Ms. Levine has continually contributed to the legal profession. This includes volunteering for bar associations, speaking on panels, and sharing her expertise in numerous articles. She has held many leadership positions, including chairing the ABA Criminal Justice Section, serving on the ABA Criminal Justice Council, and having an active role in the ABA Criminal Justice White Collar Crime Committee. On the CJ podcast JustPod, she provided tips and best practices for laying foundation at trial. And lastly, she has served as a supportive mentor to countless attorneys and law students. The eighth takeaway concerns service to the legal community:

Continually contribute to your profession.

Overall, Ms. Levine has found that her decision to practice in criminal law was a good career choice for her personal life. While balancing a busy career and being a parent, she was able to achieve a certain level of flexibility in her practice. As such, finding the right fit within the legal profession and your personal life is the ninth takeaway:

Find an area of the law that works best with your personal life.

From her accomplishments and the range of cases that she has worked on, Ms. Levine has single-handedly shown us how fascinating the practice of law can be. In her work on an espionage case and an FCPA case, she has paved the way for many by being a pioneer in the law. Through her example, we see the importance of welcoming new or unique challenges within the law. Like Ms. Levine, one day you may carve out a niche area of the law. By pushing boundaries, you may discover skill sets that you had little idea that you possessed. In developing your expertise, the final takeaway suggests leaning into the latest changes in the law:

Become a pioneer in the law by embracing the new legal issues that come your way.

In sum, by shining a spotlight on Ms. Levine’s career path, we see 10 takeaways that we can follow while striving toward a meaningful career:

  • Follow advice that takes you out of yourcomfort zone.
  • Find a workplace where your voice matters.
  • Seek out a position that demands your best work.
  • Take time in your career to sharpen and broaden your skill set.
  • Be thorough and always investigate your cases from the ground up.
  • Be tenacious throughout the course of your client’s case.
  • Stay curious and never stop learning.
  • Continually contribute to your profession.
  • Find an area of the law that works best with your personal life.
  • Become a pioneer in the law by embracing the new legal issues that come your way.

If we adopt just a few of these takeaways, we will thrive as attorneys and hopefully reflect the best ideals in our profession.

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Judge Rachel L. Pickering

Kansas Court of Appeals and Washburn University School of Law.

Judge Rachel L. Pickering is the first Hispanic to be appointed to the Kansas Court of Appeals. She also serves as an adjunct professor at Washburn University School of Law.