By Anastasia Yefremova
For the Legal
For young lawyers who think there is only one career path that leads to success, a recent Philadelphia Bar Association panel of heavy-hitters has news for you: think again.
A line-up consisting of a U.S. Attorney, a Chief Federal Defender and Pennsylvania's Inspector General sought to inspire and provoke young attorneys into entering the public sector. Assistant District Attorney Deborah Cooper Nixon, who introduced them, served as the leading lawyer behind the effort, said Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Rudolph Garcia.
The event was the first in the bar association's Speaker Series, sponsored by the Government and Public Service Lawyers Committee, for which Nixon serves as chair.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Zane D. Memeger, Chief Federal Defender Leigh M. Skipper and Pennsylvania Inspector General Kenya Mann Faulkner came together to talk about their personal journeys and the major career decisions they have faced in both the private and public sectors.
Giving his own career progression as an example, Memeger emphasized the value of going back and forth between the two. According to him, aside from allowing attorneys to see how the other side operates, this also "brings new blood and makes sure you don't become stale and cynical to the way the world works."
Faulkner spent some time fondly remembering her grandfather, who "didn't say anything philosophical, he just said, 'I want you to do your best, and I don't know what that's going to be, but I really want to be proud of you and I really want you to work hard.'"
She also mentioned her cousin who, Faulkner said, has always been the person to give it to her straight, something she said everyone should have in his or her life.
Skipper spoke of the personal pride he finds in representing a government that has the resources to fly a car full of agents and their suspect to Philadelphia using a military cargo plane, and of the importance of being prepared for the positions you take as your career progresses.
He also stressed the "autonomy awarded to the individual attorney" in his office. According to him, they are always willing and ready to provide guidance and training, and offer suggestions and advice.
However, "they know their case best," Skipper continued.
It's this individual autonomy, along with the interaction with clients who often have nothing but them that attorneys appreciate the most, he said.
It was to a mixed audience of young and seasoned attorneys that the three told their stories and recounted their personal journeys. They spoke of the positions they'd occupied in their pasts, the people who had influenced their transitions and evolutions as practitioners, and the events that marked the turning points in their lives. As Nixon said, all three can serve as excellent examples of the various ways to reach the top of your craft.
After the session, the panel was open to questions from the audience. When asked about the pros and cons of public sector work, Skipper was the first to answer. He started by pointing out that because of the economic downturn, many firms had to put their hiring programs on hiatus. According to him, interestingly enough, more than the anticipated number of participants actually elected to remain in the public sector, if the positions are available.
Skipper credited this to the exposure young attorneys receive in government work. This, he said, translates in firms' minds as more practical experience and interaction.
As his office doesn't have the luxury of turning away cases, Memeger said what would oftentimes happen is that "right out the box, you start getting cases and a lot of responsibility." This, he said, would lead to a kind of learning curve. The better young attorneys perform, the more complicated cases they receive and the more experience they consequently gain.
And although the public sector certainly doesn't pay as well as the private, Memeger continued, it has its own kind of reward.
"Having been in both, working in the private sector, yeah, you get compensated well, but at the end of the day I was not leaving the office saying I really made a difference in terms of how the lives of the community are currently in place," he said. "It's a choice that you make, and you have to balance out what's important in your life and what you want to do, but to be honest it's one of the most rewarding things you can do."
Also among the audience members was U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge C. Darnell Jones II.
"I sit here and I am extraordinarily proud of you as female and African-Americans who have achieved," he said, addressing the panelists. "But I am more proud of you because I know that there are four lawyers up there who are just simply outstanding lawyers, bar none, no matter what the race, no matter what the sex."
The panel he saw before him, he said, would not have existed in its current make-up in 1975, when he'd first come to Philadelphia.
After the conclusion of the panel, Nixon expressed her pride in the interaction the speakers had had with both their audience and each other.
"We are friends," Memeger said at the beginning of the panel. "We've been adversaries as well, but it's always fun and it's accompanied by a mutual respect that's developed from the relationship we've had for almost 20 years."