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Law and Order
Comments () | Published December 7, 2010
Thomas Bednar, who has worked on corporate litigation at a Washington law firm, took a six-figure pay cut in hopes of someday prosecuting national-security cases.

Bednar will spend much of the upcoming Thanksgiving break thinking about what he could have done differently to win the case. But with dozens of cases to worry about, he says, “you can’t be perfect and you can’t beat yourself up because you weren’t perfect today.”

He learned about handling a heavy workload under a deadline on the student newspaper at UVa., where he was an undergrad before law school. The Charlottesville campus was cosmopolitan in a way that his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, never had been—diverse, affluent, intellectually stimulating—and encouraged his interest in history, which led to an interest in the law. As a kid, he had read about famous statesmen and Presidents and realized they had all been lawyers.

Washington was the obvious next stop after he finished law school in 2004, though he had no idea how to get into government. He decided to go to Jones Day—one of the nation’s top firms—to get some experience while he figured out more specifically what he wanted to do. He ended up spending four years as a litigation associate, a job in which his typical clients were large corporations.

Halfway into his stint at the firm, Bednar spent a year clerking for Judge Royce Lamberth—now chief judge—on the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Watching the AUSAs pass through Lamberth’s courtroom, trying weighty federal cases, piqued his interest, and he soon decided that the experience he could gain as an AUSA would be well worth the $100,000-plus pay cut he’d have to take.

Six months in, it seems the right decision. While many cases are dismissed before they make it to trial, or defendants accept plea offers, Bednar has argued 30 trials since he started in the office.

“Those are trials I did,” he explains. “It’s not like I second-chaired them or had any help.” It’s the kind of experience he never could have gotten at his law firm, because large pieces of corporate litigation can take years to get to trial, and they often settle before then. “You have people that are very experienced partners, and they haven’t been involved in double-digit trials.”

While Bednar—who has been in the office the longest of the three—has moved on to a more sophisticated caseload in the autumn of 2009, AUSA Kathleen Connolly, who didn’t arrive until late July, is still getting what prosecutors call a “baptism by fire.” She’s a misdemeanor “calendar assistant,” meaning she’s assigned to a different misdemeanor courtroom each day, where she handles whatever happens to be on the calendar. Mostly the matters are status hearings—in which a defendant checks in with the judge to set a trial date or determine the next phase in a case. In those instances, the line assistants take part in setting the case’s schedule. But the judges also have several trials each day, and the line assistants handle those as well.

It’s unlikely that the misdemeanor calendar assistants will have previously seen any of the cases they have to argue. While they each have their own portfolio of cases they’re responsible for preparing for trial, there is no guarantee these will actually be the matters they end up trying. The volume of misdemeanors in DC Superior Court makes this impossible.

Calendar assistants may have only a few minutes to review the casework before a trial begins, so it’s essential that their colleagues have prepared the cases in a well-organized way.

The misdemeanor assistants go through two to three weeks of training before they start trying cases. But nothing compares to standing up in court and arguing for the first time.

Connolly’s first day in court after completing her two weeks of training was August 3—and she ended up with a drug-possession trial that day. “Nerve-racking” is how she recalls that first experience.

While the first months of an AUSA’s career can be brutal, the assistants are expected to make at least a four-year commitment, during which time they rotate through assignments in Superior Court, the DC and federal appeals courts, and federal district court. They can leave before the end of that time, but doing so is frowned upon. As hard as the constant churn of the calendar was, Connolly didn’t have any intention of leaving early—this is what she’d long wanted to do.

The public-service ethic surrounded Connolly, 33, when she was growing up, with a public-schoolteacher mother and a father who worked in local government. After college at Drew University in New Jersey, Connolly joined the Peace Corps—as had her dad and sister before her. She moved to Benin, in West Africa, where she taught English and worked on women’s education issues and AIDS prevention for two years.

She viewed the law as a way to continue to help people, but on a scale that exceeded the one-on-one, grassroots nature of the work she had done with the Peace Corps. She attended Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. While a student, she tried a case in DC Superior Court as part of a legal clinic that allowed students supervised by professors to represent indigent clients. When it was over, the judge encouraged her to become a trial lawyer.

The following summer, she interned at the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, and the experience left a strong impression. “It seemed like the people there really cared about the work they were doing,” Connolly says.

After graduating in 2006, she spent two years clerking with the Staff Attorney’s Office for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. She stayed at the court for a third year to work on immigration cases before applying to join the US Attorney’s Office.

When Connolly started, the prosecutor overseeing the rotation of line assistants was Ben Friedman, then special counsel to the US Attorney.

In his fifth-floor office, Friedman gestures to a big magnetic whiteboard on his wall, with hundreds of color-coded magnets stuck to it. Each one contains the name of an AUSA, organized by division and section.

Friedman explains that a new line assistant starts in one of two sections: in misdemeanors—as Thomas, Bednar, and Connolly did—or appellate. The appellate section, where assistants work on writing briefs and presenting oral arguments in the DC Court of Appeals and the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, is much calmer.

The next step up is the felony trial unit, which—much like general misdemeanors—mostly involves gun- and drug-related offenses, but on a more serious scale.

From there, assistants rotate into the felony major-crimes section, which includes the most serious felonies—such as burglaries and car thefts—committed in the District, other than homicides and rapes. Only more senior prosecutors who want to work on homicides or rapes are assigned to them. Such cases are never a required part of a lawyer’s time in the office.

Assistants spend the final part of the rotation handling cases throughout the sections of the federal-court division, which includes national-security, fraud-and-public-corruption, narcotics, and organized-crime cases. After that, they either leave or apply for more permanent assignments within the office.

Though the new line assistants rotate on a somewhat predetermined schedule, individual performance and recommendations from their supervisors are considered. Ultimately, with the US Attorney’s approval, it’s up to Friedman to weigh all these factors to decide when each assistant is ready to progress and where he or she will go.

He admits that the giant whiteboard is more for show than for practical purposes, because he also keeps track of everyone’s assignments in a computer database. But the line assistants like to stop by to check out whether their colleagues’ magnets have advanced on the board.

Says Friedman: “You don’t get into this office unless you’re a competitive person.”

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