Obtaining proficiency in an area of the law is beneficial; but after a while, if there are no surprises or challenges, complacency can set in. Next time your supervisor asks for someone to take on a matter that you are not quite comfortable with, raise your hand. Working on something outside of your comfort zone will force you to stretch your skill set, including your leadership and management skills.
Hennepin County District Court Judge Susan Burke can attest to this. As a young federal prosecutor, she was second chair in a Title III wiretap investigation. After 23 drug coconspirators were indicted, the senior attorney left the office to take a position on the bench, leaving Burke to try the case. “It was a very large case, and I did not have much experience,” said Burke. “There were 867 counts of money laundering in addition to the drug conspiracy. With 53 government witnesses and thousands of pages of exhibits, the experience stretched and strengthened my legal skills.”
The sheer size of this case also honed her organizational skills. Due to the large number of government witnesses, Burke created a strict schedule and carefully coordinated with interpreters for Spanish speakers and with the marshal’s office to arrange transportation for defendants in custody. “It was a test of my organizational skills because during the six months I prepared for that case, I had something important to do every single day, and I needed to keep it all straight.”
In addition to legal and organizational skills, the case tested her strategic thinking skills. Of the 23 defendants, 13 negotiated plea agreements. Burke had to make calculated, informed decisions about what pleas each defendant took and whether they were proportional to the other defendants based on their culpability and involvement in the case. “This was the first time I had to really think about the dynamics of a big case with many moving parts,” she said.
Burke is confident that the case strengthened her leadership abilities, too. “The case agents from the IRS, the DEA agents, the hundreds of law enforcement officers involved from St. Paul, Minneapolis, and the Minnesota state troopers — they were all looking to me,” she said. “It was intimidating, but I had to step up.” And the experience helped her to face challenges later in her career:
When I became a judge, court administration was looking for a volunteer to try a 10-defendant RICO case. I raised my hand again and ended up having a three-week trial. Two defendants went to trial, and I sentenced five (five corporate defendants were dismissed). The sentencing and case had the same basic considerations as the very first Title III wiretap I tried those many years ago. I relied heavily on my experience from the prior multiple-defendant cases from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.