At the Spring Conference of the ABA Young Lawyers Division, held May 2-4 in Washington, D.C., four congressional staffers shared their experiences using their law degrees on Capitol Hill.
General counsel to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
Day-to-day: McMillin says his work depends on the needs of the committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has prioritized lowering healthcare costs. Otherwise he is focused on constitutional issues as they pertain to education.
Road to the Hill: McMillin was a journalism major in college, but wasn’t interested in the expected job of reporter, ending up as a press aide on the Hill. After going to law school and practicing at a firm, he worked on now Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, then for Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) before settling in at the Senate committee.
Chief of staff for Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.)
Day-to-day: “Giant babysitter,” DeCasper kids. Also, policy and work on the senator’s re-election campaign. DeCasper says she tries to align everything coming out of the office with who she believes the senator is “and who the people elected him to be.”
Road to the Hill: DeCasper wanted to go into fashion design, but a professor told her she’s so argumentative that she should intern on the Hill. She did, then left for law school and worked as a prosecutor. Now she’s back.
Legislative counsel for Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.)
Day-to-Day: Fins calls himself an “information filter” for the congressman, and says he works on every issue, but particularly energy, the environment and immigration.
Road to the Hill: Fins came to Washington during college to intern for a congressman and knew he wanted to come back.
Counsel to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform
Day-to-Day: Cooper works on everything from prescription drug prices to ethics laws, to financial disclosures, to the need to revise voting rights laws. While the committee is “very limited legislatively,” he says, it has oversight jurisdiction “over any matter at any time under the House rules,” resulting in his varied areas of focus.
MISCONCEPTIONS OF CONGRESS
The staffers insist that Congress is more bipartisan, and more productive, than how it is perceived by most Americans and the media.
McMillin compares it to a split screen — what’s happening as portrayed in the press versus what’s happening in reality.
Fins agrees that Congress accomplishes a lot of good work, despite its reputation. “This place does get quite a bit done.”
Championing the cooperation that happens regularly on both sides, DeCasper says some of her office’s best ideas come from people who are not in their “bubble.” She calls Sen. Scott “pretty bipartisan” and says he interacts a lot with other offices.
“When you’re in the minority, you can’t get anything done in the House unless its bipartisan,” Fins explains. “People look for ways to get things done, which involve compromise.”
Congress may have been founded more than two centuries ago, but Cooper says he is surprised by how informal things are around the Hill and “how many processes aren’t written down.” When he’s asked about that, he said he’s been told, “It’s how it’s always done.”
Fins has been around for a while and met a lot of people, working for three Democratic congressmen from very different areas, each with different constituents and different pet issues. He says he’s surprised by how young people working on Capitol Hill are, how varied their experiences can be, “how big this country is and how many voices there are out there.” As a result: “You learn something every single day.”
McMillin, who worked for a member of Congress before his committee job, says working for a member “is a lot more constituent-facing,” as they include responding to letters and taking meetings. Now on the committee side, he says, staffers “have a broader perspective.”
For her part, DeCasper’s biggest surprise: Nobody stays in power very long. “This a very transitory place.”
TOP INFLUENCES ON YOUR DAY-TO-DAY
The staffers cite the media and lobbyists among the primary outside influences on their work.
McMillin warns that you “ignore [lobbyists] at your peril.”
But Fins counters that lobbyists can actually be helpful and bring a good idea to your attention. “You just need to know where that influence is coming from” and vet them against your goals.
In addition to the mainstream media, Fins says Twitter can change and dictate their days on the Hill. The social media platform offers a big upside, he says: “Twitter allows you to tell your story in a way you never could before; it’s very powerful.”
The Hill “feels like a big place but it’s actually quite small,” says Fins. He warns that “you never want to burn a bridge,” because “you never know who you’re going to need a favor from.”
Stay humble, DeCasper advises, because your ego takes a hit.
To get things done, Fins says, it is important to remember: “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.”
Also – you can find job satisfaction on the Hill with work on issues you care about, Fins says. While the interests of the member of Congress whom you serve inevitably become your own, influence works in both directions. If you “prioritize your time,” you can also influence your boss to care about something you care about, too.
ADVICE TO WOULD-BE HILLERS
Young lawyers wanting to explore working for Congress should not be afraid to reach out, the staffers agree.
But Fins acknowledges that the biggest hurdle is getting that the first shot on the Hill. After that, he says, there’s an ease in moving around, offering a diversity of experience and opportunity.
“People want to hire folks who want to be here,” Cooper says.
To get noticed by potential employers, networking is critical. McMillin stresses making time to demonstrate your interest in an issue or candidate, including by volunteering on a campaign.
You can tailor your current skill set to appeal to Hill employers, DeCasper says. She counsels every lawyer who wants to switch to this type of public service to take their legal experience and “twist it” into Hill work and policy.
Lawyers can find success on the Hill. DeCasper believes that the transition from most legal jobs to working for Congress can be “seamless” because lawyers have what it takes to thrive: We can articulate well, argue points and “think in the gray.”