By Zachary D’Amico, J.D. ’16
Rather than finish off my legal education with yet another series of black-letter law lectures and endless April nights reading outlines, I opted to spend my final four months at Harvard Law School working in the Office of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Thanks to the Government Lawyer: Semester in Washington Clinic, I was able to get outside the classroom and see the day-to-day impact that a lawyer can have working in public service.
I initially reached out to Senator Warren’s office for several reasons. My placement search began with two fundamental questions: (1) Where can I have the most impact? and (2) Where can I do something I believe in? In a time of congressional gridlock – a problem exacerbated by the 2016 election cycle – Senator Warren’s office has proven that it can use informal means to accomplish its goals. Perhaps just as important, many of those were goals I already believed in, some involving issues I had worked on during my time in law school.
While I was lucky enough to work on an array of projects with many individuals over the past four months, I spent the majority of my time working for Sen. Warren’s Oversight and Investigations team. Most offices in the Senate don’t have special oversight staff; these jobs are typically under the jurisdiction of committees. Senator Warren, however, has the power of the public megaphone on her side, and oversight and investigations are two important tools with which she wields that power.
Jumping into an office that has an exponentially larger output than any office with a staff of its size should have, I found myself with more immediate responsibility than I expected. Two projects I worked on during my first month in Washington are representative of my experiences throughout the semester: one involving enforcement efforts and the other a proposed rule from the Department of Labor.
On my first day, my boss briefed me on Senator Warren’s effort to shine a spotlight on the government’s woefully ineffective enforcement practices. I spent over a week investigating and researching dozens of failed prosecutions, toothless settlements, and other government failures of enforcement across a wide range of agencies. Much of this research was incorporated into our office’s first annual enforcement report entitled “Rigged Justice.” Just three weeks into my new job I had made a practical contribution to the legal world in a way that was beyond anything I had done in two and a half years of law school before that.
For my second project, I had to completely switch gears in order to research and gather information for a letter Senator Warren sent to the Department of Labor in support of a proposed rule on fiduciary standards for retirement advisers. The letter helped point out that critics of the regulation were not being completely honest (and in a latter letter Sen. Warren asked the SEC to investigate if these companies were misleading investors about the regulation) and DOL eventually finalized the rule in early April. This project was one of many that taught me my most valuable lesson I learned in four months I spent working on Capitol Hill: don’t be afraid to dive in with your eyes closed. I knew very little about retirement advising when my boss handed me this project. But as I would come to find out, most people in the office faced the same obstacle at some point in their careers. It’s okay to not have a clue what you’re doing at time, as long as you’re willing to do whatever it takes to figure it out.
I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with such an intelligent, hardworking team for such an inspirational woman. For anyone considering the Semester in Washington Clinic, I highly recommend the experience.