February 10, 2020 Articles

JIOP Alumni Spotlight: Lisette S. Washington

A program alum discusses how her judicial internship gave her useful career building blocks and what she would say to law school graduates interested in working in the public sector.

By Harmony Gbe

Lisette Washington is a government contracts attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Headquarters in Washington, D.C. As a legal representative, Lisette defends NASA in bid protests before the U.S. Government Accountability Office and in contract claims before the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals. As a legal advisor, Lisette guides internal stakeholders in their decision making regarding federal contracts that support major space activities. Lisette also provides legal support to the NASA Acquisition Integrity Program and to the NASA Offices of Small Business Programs, Legislative Affairs, and STEM Engagement.

Lisette participated in the ABA Section of Litigation’s Judicial Intern Opportunity Program (JIOP) during the summer after her first year of law school by serving as a judicial intern to the Honorable Sara L. Ellis in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Lisette credits her JIOP internship for teaching her invaluable analytical research and writing skills that made it possible for her to join NASA’s General Counsel Office right out of law school even though NASA typically does not hire recent law school graduates.

What drew you to attend law school?

I grew up in Evanston, Illinois, which is a small town right outside of Chicago. I took a fascinating course in high school about the American legal system in which we studied landmark Supreme Court cases and their effects on society. Learning about how different people advocated for social change by pushing for changes in the law convinced me that a legal career was the right path for me. I wanted to become an advocate for those seeking to address complex social issues through the judicial system. With that goal in mind, I majored in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I developed a passion for public interest work through various internships at nonprofit and government organizations in Illinois and in Washington, D.C. After college, I enrolled in law school at George Washington University—for many reasons, including its robust Public Interest and Pro Bono Program.

What are some of the lessons you learned through JIOP?

My JIOP internship taught me three important lessons.

First, my judicial internship tremendously enhanced my research, writing, and legal advocacy abilities. Gaining these strong analytical skills made me appealing to future employers because I could demonstrate that I knew how to communicate in a professional style and tone. In fact, after my JIOP internship, I was fortunate enough to intern for another judge, at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, where I mostly handled government contract cases. The judge was particularly impressed by my prior judicial internship experience and appreciated the fact that I knew how to write clearly and concisely. In addition, witnessing the inner workings of a courtroom firsthand exposed me to various legal advocacy styles, some more effective than others.

Second, by working for a judge, I learned from someone who is an expert at practicing law and gained valuable insight into how courts analyze legal arguments from an objective point of view. As a law student, I was mainly focused on learning how to advocate for a client, but as a judicial intern, my focus shifted to truly evaluating the merits of a case. To this end, a piece of advice I would pass along to current interns is to carefully review the cases opposing parties cite in their briefs but always conduct your own independent legal research. This is crucial because your research will enhance your understanding of the legal issues, give you an opportunity to appreciate developments in the law, and allow you to maintain an objective perspective in your legal analyses.

Third, I learned how to ask meaningful questions and request feedback from law clerks with different work styles. For example, some staff members wanted me to check in with them periodically regarding the progress of my work assignments, whereas others preferred to give me general directions at the beginning of an assignment and then review the finished work product. What was most important, however, was that I took some time to explore legal issues on my own and then found the appropriate time to ask questions and check my understanding. Looking back, having others review and critique my work was invaluable to my skill development as a law student. Also, tailoring my work style to accommodate others’ work styles is a trait I am happy I picked up early on in my career.

Any advice for law school students looking into post-graduate opportunities?

I tried my best to identify a legal specialization while I was in law school because I wanted to distinguish myself in the job market before graduation. I realized that I had to go beyond the classroom to learn about particular areas of law. I cold-called and emailed attorneys with unique backgrounds at law firms and private companies, and I reached out to speakers from conferences to learn more about their legal practices. Also, while in law school, I interned for three federal agencies, the U.S. General Services Administration, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and NASA, in order to gain substantive work experience and see the law “in action.” I strongly recommend that current law students explore different career paths early and often, and do not hesitate to reach out to more experienced lawyers and alumni—even unfamiliar ones—for career advice.

Harmony Gbe is a law clerk at the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Previously, she worked as a litigation associate at Hogan Lovells, an international law firm.

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