Solving problems.

Last week I accompanied an old friend to address a group of undergrads who are interested in pursuing a career in law. He doesn’t generally travel about with an escort, but because I was the one who had gotten him roped into the event, I felt obliged to accompany him and smile encouragingly. If necessary, I was prepared to fake a heart attack to allow him a speedy exit from a disastrous speech.

Let me back up, though, to the story of how he came by this duty in the first place. I had, earlier in the semester, addressed this same group on the subject of law school admissions. In the course of my sonant meanderings, I mentioned that my husband is an assistant U.S. attorney. They all sat up straighter and widened their eyes, and some audibly gasped—all in all making it pretty clear that that was the first thing I’d said to really capture their attention, which some people might find insulting, but which I chose to take as an affirmation of large life choices. They immediately began lobbying for my husband to attend a future group meeting, but although my husband makes his living in a courtroom, he pretty much views public speaking as a trial. (As it were.) Valuing my happy marriage, I instead offered up another AUSA, Dan Hurley, ’91. I figured because Hurley is both a Michigan Law alumnus and an adjunct professor, the undergrads had at least some minor moral claim on his time.

I originally came to know Hurley when we carpooled together in 1992-93—I headed to my job as a judicial clerk, and he, along with everyone else in the carpool, headed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. (The previous year, Hurley himself had been the lone clerk among AUSAs.) Hurley’s most positive attribute as a carpoolee was that he drove the fastest. His most negative attribute was that he was consistently a little bit late—I have a strong visual recollection of Hurley peeling around the corner every morning, 90 seconds after everyone else. (I know, realistically, that his car wasn’t actually on two wheels as he lurched around the corner, but that’s how I like to think of it.) And the biggest challenge he presented as a fellow carpoolee was that I really had to fight him for airtime. People who don’t like to talk much are not without their charms as friends.

But in this case, I was counting on his fondness for speaking. He was a completely good sport about missing dinner with his wife and 8 million or so incredibly cute children to make time for this event. (He did run over by 15 minutes, however, which was to be expected. And he did arrive exactly 90 seconds late.) He did an excellent job not just in describing the ins and outs of a very interesting career, spanning both the Civil and Criminal Divisions as well as a stint in private practice, but in giving practical guidance about following a similar path.

He counseled that one way to get the most sought-after government jobs is by getting to know people who hire for these positions—and then impressing them. It’s a two-part process; it’s not enough simply to meet people—you need to give them enough context to form a positive impression of you as a potential employee. Government agencies, he said, are notoriously understaffed. Find one. Offer yourself for menial free labor: stuffing envelopes, making copies, answering telephones. It won’t work in every office, obviously, but all you need is a foot in one door. Just make sure that the foot is, you know, well-shod. (Ah, another metaphor carried too far.) Government employers like to see a history of commitment to the cause you’re claiming to be interested in, and the undergraduate years are not too early to begin making the case.

That’s, in fact, how my husband got into the USA’s Office: interning while in law school, and working pretty much incessantly on anything that came his way. Hurley’s slightly different route, of impressing a bunch of carpooling AUSAs through his penchant for speaking incessantly on any topic and his ability to make up for lost time by driving extra fast, is another option. (I never landed a job in the USA’s Office through the carpool, though—I overshot the mark by marrying one of them instead.)

I thought Hurley’s central message was inspiring, empowering, all those hackneyed words: You want to be a lawyer. Lawyers solve problems. For this purpose of launching your career, you’re your first client. Solve the problem. Why should someone hire you to solve the problems of others if you won’t take affirmative steps to tackle your own? On the one hand, it’s uncompromising—but on the other, it’s hard to argue the point.

-Dean Z. Assistant Dean for Admissions and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies