Bednar received an e-mail in February about a chance to spend a year working for the Department of Justice on Guantánamo Bay detainee cases. The chance to do a temporary “detail” at Justice is another benefit of working in the US Attorney’s Office. This assignment would involve handling habeas corpus cases where the government is arguing for the continued right to hold detainees. After a year, Bednar would return to the US Attorney’s Office and continue his four-year rotation.
To Bednar, it sounded like an ideal chance to get more experience working in national security—the area of the law where he ultimately hopes to focus his career. At Jones Day, he did some work that involved studying the rise of Islamic terrorist groups and the funding of terrorism. When he clerked for Judge Lamberth, he assisted with a number of national-security cases, including one that eventually made it to the Supreme Court.
Bednar applied for the detail, highlighting these past experiences, and in March he found out he’d been accepted. But by early June, he’s still working away as a line assistant because the security clearance is taking longer than expected.
In anticipation of Bednar’s leaving for a year, the supervisors in the US Attorney’s Office have assigned another assistant to take over his caseload—and his office. Bednar is now in a sort of limbo. He’s working out of a break room and pitching in to help colleagues where he can as he waits to get cleared.
SUMMER: EVERYONE IS CONNECTED
The pace slows down for Kathleen Connolly over the summer as well. One Friday, she’s reveling in the fact that she finally had time to clean off her desk: “I keep looking at it. I’m like, ‘Look at how nice my desk looks!’ ” Her judge is out of town for a conference, which means she hasn’t been in court for almost a week—as much of a break as any AUSA could hope for. Now that she’s been in felonies for several months, she has a better handle on the work. Her caseload has been reduced, which means her typical work week is down to 60 hours; she was previously putting in closer to 80. Today Connolly is leaving by 5:30 to go to happy hour with some colleagues.
For the first time since joining the office, she has some semblance of a work/life balance. The trouble is she’s still not happy. Before, she wondered if it was just the stress and crazy hours that were keeping her from loving the job. Now she’s sure there’s more to it than that.
What Connolly does enjoy about the office is the camaraderie. “We bounce ideas off each other every single day,” she says. “To do this job without good people—I can’t imagine it.”
That’s also what nearly every alumnus of the office mentions first when asked about the experience there. All say the strong friendships built there are a natural consequence of the intense pace and pressure. It’s just not possible to handle the workload alone.
“You can’t survive unless you help each other out,” says Kenneth Wainstein, who was an assistant prosecutor in the office and also the US Attorney for DC from 2004 to 2006. “One person’s head starts to go under, the other person who might have a little bit of breathing space will reach over and help them out.”
Those bonds last beyond the office, a fact that can be helpful for the many prosecutors who go on to become prominent members of the city’s criminal-defense bar. Robert Spagnoletti, now a partner at the law firm Schertler & Onorato, spent 13 years as an assistant US Attorney in DC. He points to one of his recent high-profile trials as evidence of the enduring camaraderie.
He was on the defense team in the obstruction-of-justice case against three men accused of covering up evidence in the 2006 murder of Washington lawyer Robert Wone in a Dupont Circle rowhouse. “You would expect it to be an extraordinarily tense relationship with the prosecutors,” says Spagnoletti. “Not so. Not at all. Even though we fundamentally disagreed with everything they did.”
Everyone involved in the Wone trial, he explains, was connected through the US Attorney’s Office. The judge in the case, Lynn Leibovitz, is a former assistant prosecutor, and she had started in the office a few months prior to Spagnoletti’s arrival. He took over her cases when she was elevated to new caseloads. David Schertler and Thomas Connolly, two of the other defense attorneys in the case, also overlapped in the US Attorney’s Office with Leibovitz, as well as with Glenn Kirschner, who remains an AUSA and was the lead prosecutor in the Wone trial.
As a result of these connections, some of the negotiations with the prosecution, says Spagnoletti, took place over beers.