Legal Professionals Discuss Legal Careers After Dartmouth

The Rockefeller Center's Hinman Forum was filled with bustling crowds of students on Wednesday evening for a panel discussion on "Legal Careers after Dartmouth." 

Wednesday's panelists featured Sue Finegan '85, Judge John Mott '81, David Lieberman, moderator Julie Kalish '91, and host Professor Herschel Nachlis. 

Sue Finegan '85 is a Pro Bono Partner and the Chair of the Pro Bono Committee at her law firm, Mintz. Finegan also serves as the Vice Chair for the Dartmouth Board of Trustees. Judge John Mott '81 has served as a mediator, arbitrator, Title IX Adjudicator, and Special Master throughout his career. Since retiring as a judge for the District of Columbia Superior Court, Judge Mott has served as a neutral case mediator. David Lieberman serves as an attorney for the criminal division at the Department of Justice (DOJ). Research Assistant Professor of Government, Senior Policy Fellow, and Assistant Director of the Rockefeller Center, Herschel Nachlis, hosted the panel. Julie Kalish' 9l, a lecturer at Dartmouth College and Vermont Law School J.D., moderated the discussion. 

Panelists first shared with the audience their professional experience, then provided some advice for those aspiring to the legal profession. Finegan spoke of her desire to do public interest work while also grappling with the real reality of the student loans with which she graduated from law school. As she navigated the legal profession, she discovered it wasn't as black and white as she first thought. In fact, it was "very gray." Finegan joined a large firm, eventually making partner, and then left the firm, pivoting to a more nuanced position in public interest law, before later being invited back to Mintz, where she still works. Finegan's current position, Pro Bono Partner, didn't even exist when she first entered the firm, she remarked. Finegan concluded by sharing with the audience that you can do public interest work in the private realm. 

Judge John Mott, a member of the class of 1981, said Dartmouth was a "bit of a different institution at the time, but much the same." Judge Mott did not think about law school "for even thirty seconds" while at Dartmouth, he exclaimed, instead focusing on history courses, cross-country skiing, and friends. After taking some time off before law school – teaching at a local boarding school before spending a year traveling the world – Judge Mott later attended Northeastern Law School. He reflected positively on the school's Co-op program, which allows for abundant work experience, even saying, "I absolutely loved law school!" Judge Mott spent his career serving as a public defender, then prosecuting civil rights crimes at the DOJ, and then on the bench for the District of Columbia Superior Court. Judge Mott concluded, "There are so many good, exciting jobs that mean something."

David Lieberman, like Judge Mott, did not always know he wanted to go to law school. As a journalism major as an undergraduate, "I had no idea what I wanted to be… I learned I liked to write, and then that I liked to argue," as he explained his journey to law school. Lieberman went straight to law school after graduating from college, which he did not recommend to students in the audience. He wished he had challenged himself to explore other fields, even if they wouldn't have been his "forever jobs," because "there'll never be a better time to do so." After law school, though, Lieberman clerked for two years, which he said served as "excellent training," and has since served the last eleven years at the DOJ. Lieberman explained his three main areas of responsibility in his current job as working with the solicitor general's office to represent the U.S. in federal criminal cases brought before the Supreme Court, representing the government in criminal cases in federal courts of appeal, and helping with litigation in Washington, D.C., involved with January 6th, 2021 charges. Lieberman reflected fondly upon his career thus far, "It is very easy for me to get up in the morning and do this work… if you are interested in public service, pursue it."

Julie Kalish kicked off the Q&A portion of the panel by asking how the panelists live out their values in their legal careers or live a life and career in line with their values. Lieberman responded first, explaining that representing the government sometimes means representing views he doesn't share but that "this is part of the deal" in accepting a job of that nature. Speaking about death penalty cases, Lieberman expressed his disagreement with capital punishment. Still, he leveled with the audience, "Whatever discomfort I have, I'm involved in the conversation as to what the position should be… and hopefully influence it… sometimes it aligns, sometimes it's a little different, and I'm comfortable with that." Judge Mott, pivoting slightly, remarked that "you absolutely can live out [your values] in a career in law." Finegan agreed, saying, "You can strategically work with your client to make a difference and make it [the outcome] more palatable." Although in a unique position to choose her cases as a Pro Bono Partner, Finegan also shared that her colleagues have historically been respected for stepping away from cases they may not be comfortable working on. 

The next question came from a student in the audience who was curious about fighting cynicism when the legal system functions slowly, yet the higher courts are constantly handing down rapid changes. Judge Mott described how this phenomenon works to the disadvantage of civil liberties: "It's harder for justice," but that it also empowers people to fight, that it's crucial "everybody does their part." Judge Mott took a more optimistic stance, reflecting on the many spectacular changes within the last fifteen years and that we "still [have] so far to go." Finegan similarly spoke to the need for coalition building and strategic community building across the board to combat both slowness and unjust legal regressions. 

The next student asked for advice on choosing which type of law to pursue. Finegan regarded networking and outreach as especially important, particularly learning what the day-to-day is like for legal professionals in various fields. "Your jobs are very, very different depending on what you choose," Finegan elaborated, so it's crucial to ask pointed questions while networking and talking with professionals. Lieberman reflected on how beneficial clinical education was for him during law school, explaining it provided great exposure to different fields on top of internship experiences, allowing him to "get some sense of what it's like to practice in various corners of the law." Judge Mott also mentioned the importance of work experience and experimenting during law school. "Right now, there is no reason to think 'I should know what to do,'" he told the audience. He recommended students take time off to work and pursue other passions before beginning law school. Law schools "will see an applicant that is more passionate because they have these different experiences," he insisted. Julie Kalish chimed in, reflecting on her experience in the legal profession, affirming the panelists' sentiments that law can be incredibly accommodating. 

Professor Nachlis closed the panel with one final question asking the panelists to share the best and worst advice they've received. Finegan began by sharing a story involving her grandmother from when she was deciding on career options after law school. Her grandmother recommended that she find a private firm to provide her with a comfortable life and help her pay off her law school debt. Finegan thought it was the worst advice then but admitted it was incredibly valuable and practical and hindsight. Lieberman said that the worst advice he received, or rather the norm he accepted, was doing things to catch employers' eyes. Reflecting on his experience at the Stanford Law Review, he said, "If you don't find it rewarding, even if everyone is telling you to do it, don't do it." Similarly, Lieberman said the best advice he's received was to figure out what you're passionate about and don't feel pressured to plan out and have a fixed model for your life; "you'll have a more enriching life in the moment and later a better lawyer," he observed. Judge Mott concluded the panel by speaking to integrity's importance: "Think about what you're shooting for and why." In summation of the panelists' comments, Judge Mott repeated, "Don't rush to figure it out… and the rest will come. You're all going to do fine."