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Profiles in Government Service: Advice from the Trenches

Clayton LaForge

"The leading rule for the lawyer . . . is diligence. Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today. Never let your correspondence fall behind. Whatever piece of business you have in hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it which can then be done."
--Abraham Lincoln

The perspectives of three different public sector lawyers -- a federal magistrate judge, a special assistant United States attorney, and a state public defender -- reveal that each possesses the same core traits: professionalism, candor, and knowledge of developments in their practice areas. President Lincoln's advice above holds true today; these three attorneys explain that following this advice not only facilitates success in practice, but also creates opportunities for advancement. When asked, "What legal issue in your field is critical for every lawyer to understand?" each provided sage words and some practical tips for raising the bar

The Federal Magistrate Judge

The Honorable Silvia Carreño-Coll serves as a federal magistrate judge in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. Judge Carreño-Coll became a magistrate judge in 2011. She previously served as the Associate Regional Counsel for Caribbean Programs with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and as a special assistant U.S. attorney and assistant U.S. attorney in both the civil and criminal divisions in Puerto Rico.

As one of four magistrates in Puerto Rico's U.S. District Court, Judge Carreño-Coll carries a heavy criminal and civil docket. Federal magistrate judges typically have only one judicial assistant and one law clerk, yet they are expected to bear similar workloads as their colleagues in the district court.

Judge Carreño-Coll's criminal docket consists largely of probable cause and suppression hearings. Magistrate judges take turns hearing requests for warrants from law enforcement agencies, a rotation informally referred to as "duty week," which frequently requires review of evidence and testimony at all hours of the night. Her civil docket varies just as a district court's, but magistrate judges in the District of Puerto Rico often hold pretrial and settlement conferences, resolve discovery disputes, dole out sanctions, and adjudicate all non-dispositive motions which the district judges refer to them.

Her role in the administration of justice proves even more critical when considering that Puerto Rico boasts one of the most voluminous criminal dockets in the nation, and, for practical purposes, has only one federal court on an island of approximately 3.5 million people. When litigants, witnesses, and jurors appear before the federal court, they often have traveled for hours at great expense. Some require interpreters to assist with Spanish-to-English translations. It falls to Judge Carreño-Coll and her colleagues to ensure these participants receive all the privileges and rights to which they are constitutionally and statutorily entitled. This uniqueness places additional, paramount concerns on the shoulders of the members of the bench unfamiliar to many jurisdictions throughout the federal judiciary.
Judge Carreño-Coll's encourages attorneys to strive for professionalism and candor. Few things infuriate judges as much as failure to adhere to basic courtroom decorum. The Puerto Rico Bar is small; the judges here likely know every attorney who appears before them on a personal level. "Judges are often lifelong friends with counsel," she remarked, "but friendship ceases when attorneys walk into the courtroom."

The same goes for motions practice. Judge Carreño-Coll champions candor in briefs. "If attorneys attempt to hide or completely omit contrary authority, my law clerk or I will likely find it, so it benefits everyone to acknowledge the shortcomings of an argument," she states. Each brief submitted impacts the perception of the attorney not only in the matter at hand, but also in every single appearance made before the judge thereafter. Candidly admitting the pitfalls of one's argument enhances an attorney's credibility when arguing the next. Proactively pursuing the opportunity to distinguish unfavorable authority demonstrates a more thorough understanding of the law and creates a better rapport with the court.

Within the realm of criminal law, Judge Carreño-Coll advises young attorneys to remain persistent in their objections. Novice litigators, she notes, "too often become disheartened after their initial objections are overruled." On several occasions, Judge Carreño-Coll has observed that some objections she initially overruled would be sustained if resubmitted based on the circumstances.

As an alumna of the U.S. Attorney's Office, she understands the disparities in prosecutors' and defense attorneys' resources. The backing of the federal government places the prosecution at an advantage, and, if warranted, may implicitly compel a judge to hold the prosecution to a higher standard. Judges also approach in-chambers conferences with the same level of professionalism but with more eagerness to ethically assist with resolution. When judges hold hearings or conferences in chambers, Judge Carreño-Coll advises, "Attorneys should take advantage of the opportunity to gain greater insight into what the judge thinks about a particular position, procedural question, or approach." Just like the lawyers who appear before her, Judge Carreño-Coll's mindset remains focused on the swift administration of justice. Chambers conferences are an opportunity to assist attorneys by discussing or attempting to resolve an issue, within the bounds of ethics, of course.

The Special Assistant United States Attorney

Jennifer Sykes currently serves as a special assistant United States attorney with the Department of Justice. Sykes joined the Department of Justice through its prestigious Honors Program after clerking for the Honorable Alvin W. Thompson in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. She received her law degree from the University of Richmond. Before attending law school, Sykes was an intelligence officer in the United States Air Force.

At the Department of Justice, Sykes works in the criminal trial division. Assigned to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Maryland, she works with various local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the investigation and prosecution of federal crimes, including violent crimes, firearms offenses, narcotics conspiracies, child exploitation, and sex trafficking. In some cases, she responds to habeas petitions before both federal district and appeals courts. Sykes's division formulates and implements criminal enforcement policies. It also advises the Attorney General, Congress, and the White House on international, federal, state, and local law enforcement matters.

Sykes discussed the challenges of serving as a new prosecutor. She often "devotes hours to studying the legal issues surrounding grand jury proceedings, detention hearings, motions hearings, and trials a more experienced peer can learn or relearn in a matter of minutes." Sykes draws on her internship experiences with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, her clerkship with Judge Thompson, and other stints with judges' or prosecutors' offices as well as more experienced prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office across the country. She emphasizes the importance of gaining substantive experience in any way available to both students and young attorneys. She notes that these opportunities, whether paid or unpaid, allow lawyers to distinguish themselves and capitalize on otherwise unfamiliar legal issues, especially when a trial attorney has to think on her feet in court. "The more a young trial attorney appears in court," she states, "the more confidence she will gain in fully preparing for a hearing or a trial."

Sykes believes the great equalizer lies in understanding the myriad rules and intricacies of discovery, as well as balancing a large caseload with issues spanning various investigatory and prosecution stages. With ever-developing technology and case law that impact the forms and rules of discovery, both novice and credentialed litigators stand at the mercy of often mundane discovery rules. Mastering the parameters and directives of discovery, though tedious, allows an attorney to distinguish him or herself. Sykes explains that the formula for attorneys to better understand these developments is simple: diligence and attention to detail. Counsel for both defendants and the prosecution have equal access to case law and the rules. Who prevails often directly corresponds with who has done their homework and can provide the most detailed reasoning. Moreover, prosecutors have broad discretion and must learn early in their career how to exercise it.

The Assistant Public Defender

Maria Teresa Gonzalez is an Assistant Public Defender in the Cook County Public Defender's Office in Chicago, Illinois. She began her legal career as a law clerk in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico with the Honorable Gustavo A. Gelpi and as an intern in her current office during law school. Gonzalez describes defending the less privileged as a dream job. Her practice revolves around defending her clients against drug possession and distribution charges, raising Fourth Amendment privacy challenges, and assault and battery matters.

Gonzalez grapples with a significant caseload, averaging court appearances in approximately 30 cases daily. Although her internship and clerkship with a federal district court judge gave her a significant amount of real life experience, Gonzalez finds that nothing quite prepares an attorney for the rigor and challenges of fervently advocating for so many clients on any given day.

Unlike federal court, where criminal cases may extend for months or years and defense attorneys rotate through judges and cases, Gonzalez appears in the same courtroom before the same judge every day. She notes that credibility with the court is paramount. On the one hand, Gonzalez is compelled to vigorously represent her clients by arguing points of law or questions of fact. On the other, she avoids allowing her arguments to become unreasonable or far-fetched so that her credibility is damaged.

Some conventional elements of trial advocacy and the judicial process concern Gonzalez. When a suspect is arrested, the quickest route to release is often a guilty plea and acceptance of a more lenient sentence, thereby allowing the suspect to serve no prison time. Someone with a reasonable prospect of success at trial will often plead guilty to hasten a return to their jobs and families. Gonzalez supports allowing individual prosecutors more discretion to dismiss cases they deem meritless or unworthy of the state's time. "Every case is different," she asserts, "and a prosecutor's office that treats every offender the same, without discretion, both overloads the court system and fails to achieve justice."

Gonzalez's caseload exemplifies the need for what Chief Justice Roberts recently lamented in the 2013 Year-End Report as a predictable constant: "At the top of my list is a year-end report that must once again dwell on the need to provide adequate funding for the Judiciary . . . . The budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts." Gonzalez notes how state and federal prosecutors have better resources that inherently disadvantage her clients. Still, Gonzalez remains both optimistic about and complimentary of the public defender program, remarking, "It personifies due process."

Gonzalez lauds first-time offender programs and would like to see their expansion to include second-time offenders, if the circumstances merit it. Most of her clients' backgrounds consist of fractured families and poverty. "Holding these clients to the same expectations as those who grew up in nurturing, affluent homes is unfair," she asserts. She believes they should be considered for deferred prosecution programs rather than incarceration. Successful completion of programs for education, drug treatment, vocational skills, and mental health may provide a constructive alternative to conventional prosecution.

Gonzalez sees constant changes by reviewing courts to Fourth Amendment search and seizure issues, particularly in cases that develop around the curtilage of the home. She frequently relies on new precedent from her jurisdiction in suppression and evidentiary hearings, particularly in drug cases. For example, a recent case held that a single transaction of unidentified objects does not support probable cause to believe that a drug transaction has occurred. With so many innovations in technology, contention over what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy, and competing case law as applied to specific facts spanning state and federal jurisprudence, Gonzalez finds it critical to persistently argue why the facts of the case at bar can be meaningfully distinguished from those in a higher court ruling. "Developments in technology and the law, combined with turnover in the judiciary, may result in a different outcome," she notes.


While the day-to-day duties of a federal magistrate judge, a special assistant U.S. attorney, and a state public defender could not be more different, they all share similar principles and values -- professionalism, candor and remaining up-to-date about legal developments. Their successes demonstrate the effectiveness of implementing those principles to enhance the stature of public service and the legal profession as a whole.

Clayton LaForge is a law to clerk to a federal judge. He graduated with honors as a John Marshall Scholar from the University of Richmond and has worked at the White House and the Supreme Court of the United States.


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