Spotlight on...
May-June 2009

What previous job prepared you for working in a prosecutors’ office?

Boyd Kennedy, Texas Parks and Wildlife

After my first year at Stephen F. Austin University, an uncle invited me to come spend the summer in Atlanta working for him at a big wholesale lumberyard. Most of the work was stacking lumber in the sun, but on occasion a rail car came in from the West Coast packed to the ceiling with redwood. Because I was the youngest and skinniest, I got to crawl in on top of it all and hand out boards one by one while getting muddy with sweat and red sawdust and getting a few burns from brushing the top of the car with bare skin. It’s been 30 years and I vividly remember clocking out on the last day and thinking, “I will never punch a timeclock again.” I can still hear and feel the thump on the card.

It was my first experience in a big city. That is where I worked alongside the guy who stole bicycles from front yards. He cheerfully told me he drove around the block twice, and if a bike were still there, he figured the owner didn’t want it any more. He also knew where to buy beer on election day (which was illegal in Georgia). Several of my coworkers routinely cashed their checks every Friday at the closest liquor store. I was unusual in that I had a bank account. Another eye-opener was riding with a coworker on an errand as he detoured to an apartment complex and bought drugs through a window. One day a guy who came out to apply for a job tried to steal a car after the interview and had to be run off. The forklift drivers threw their empty vodka bottles behind stacks of lumber where they might not be found for months. I almost got in a fight by insisting that Texas was a lush, green place to a guy who accused me of lying because he had once driven all the way across Texas on I-20 and knew for a fact it was a desert. (He came through northeast Texas at night.) There were also some very fine men there, and to a man, everybody worked hard and got along well with each other.

It was great motivation to stay in school. I think it also gave me a better sense of how most people, including jurors and criminals, live and think and an appreciation for the good things in life, such as sick leave and air conditioning. That was not my only manual labor job but it was by far the most educational.

Andrea L. Westerfeld, Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Collin County

My recurring job throughout college and law school was temping. I worked in just about every size of office, doing any kind of administrative task they needed, and worked with a huge variety of people. I always thought it helped me be flexible in any situation, which is certainly helpful as a prosecutor. I also don’t think there’s a better way to learn how to be organized than to work as a file clerk. The most important thing I learned, though, was that support staff rule the world. It was amazing seeing how a helpful secretary could squeak something through when you’d forgotten to get something in on time or how one you’d annoyed could make sure your work was always at the very bottom of the stack. And believe me, being rude to the receptionist would guarantee you a one-way trip to hold-music purgatory! I learned that having a good relationship with all support staff—not only in your office but also in the courts and even in opposing counsels’ offices—will help you get things done when seconds count.

David Newell, Assistant District Attorney in Harris County

I have found that my job at Blockbuster Video provided me with tools for my later work as a prosecutor. For example, anticipating and identifying people’s likes and dislikes based on limited information proved pretty good training for voir dire. Sure, there are definitely prosecutors who are better at voir dire (and at selecting movies for that matter) than I am, but I do think it enhanced my communication skills.

Also, trying to explain late fees has proven valuable as well, at least in the context of plea bargaining. I was often called upon to support this unpopular (but necessary) policy while maintaining a level of civility and without backing down. It enhanced my appreciation for consistent application of rules. I quickly learned how departing from accepted practice would be met with hostility from my boss and the patrons if I were not able to articulate a reason for that departure.

Learning to weather criticism for things beyond my control has also helped me as a prosecutor. While I certainly had no control over the quality of the rented movies, I was still the focal point for the customer’s disappointment. Learning to accept it with humility so that the customer would continue to rely upon the services of my employer was a great lesson for work in the public sector.

And finally, as Steve Martin said in the movie Grand Canyon, “All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.” Being able to relate a particular thought or idea to a popular movie establishes a connection between me and anyone I might be trying to persuade. Seeing a lot of movies has provided me with a wealth of such touchstones to utilize when trying to communicate.

Jeff Bray, Senior Legal Advisor, Plano Police Department

I was a prosecutor for 11 years in Collin, Dallas, and Gregg Counties. Before that, I interned in the Galveston County DA’s office, Oklahoma County (OK) DA’s office, and Brazos County DA’s office. While at Brazos County one of the prosecutors, Margaret Lalk, suggested the best preparation for being a prosecutor is not necessarily working in a law firm or prosecutors’ office; it’s getting experience and rubbing shoulders with the people who will be your jurors, witnesses, and the like. Therefore, that summer I worked a glass pane washing machine at the Alenco window factory in Bryan. It was fantastic experience working with people that college students and law students do not typically fraternize with. Before and after that, I made my bread and butter as a waiter. That also is excellent preparation for being a lawyer, as you always have to smile, be polite, and figure out what the customers want and whether they can be satisfied reasonably or if they’re kooks. Sound familiar? It’s the same thing we do during jury selection and conferences during docket. Even the kooks need to be smiled at and politely sent on their way, though they may leave you a one-dollar tip.

Edna Hernandez, Assistant District Attorney in Waller County

Before I went to law school, I had a lot of jobs. I worked my way through college usually with two jobs at a time. One that stands out is my first job out of college: a food stamp caseworker at the Texas Department of Human Services. That job taught me how to ask probing questions—for instance, try pulling out the name of a baby’s father from a woman who doesn’t want him turned over to the AG’s office. It also taught me how to dig for the truth. We would get quarterly reports from the IRS and the caseworkers would have to verify whether our clients had worked at the places they listed. Often they were working there, but sometimes they were the victims of ID theft. We also had to defend ourselves when clients filed appeals about our decisions. They would show up to the administrative hearing with their legal-aid lawyers in tow. We would sit alone and had to explain to the administrative judge why we did what we did. And the caseloads were huge. The investigation had to be worked in between the eight- or nine-hour-long interviews scheduled daily, and no overtime was allowed. So being a caseworker at DHS was a nice preview for what was in store as a prosecutor.

Another job that stands out, for less obvious reasons, was my very first job: I started working in the fields before my 10th birthday. (Think a couple of notches up from the movie Slumdog Millionaire—but only because I didn’t have to steal for food.) How can hard manual labor compare to being a prosecutor? Well, aside from the long hours, both jobs help me put things into perspective, and the memories give me a healthy dose of reality. It also makes me appreciate the little I have now and lets me know I can do anything I put my mind to. ✤