By Andrew Cohen
For six recent Berkeley Law alums and one current student chosen for the prestigious U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Honors Program, exhilaration turned into uncertainty amid announcements of a governmental hiring freeze.
Soon after Ben Takemoto ’15, Lisa Nash ’14, Andy Coghlan ’15, Hayley Carpenter ’16, Katherine DeMocker ’15, Monsura Sirajee ’17 and a graduate who wants to remain anonymous were selected in December, it felt like a roller coaster. Ups and downs, twists and turns, always with the hope of a thrilling finish.
A few months of limbo later, the good news arrived: DOJ Honors Program hires would go forward as planned.
“After working very closely with all of our applicants, it was so thrilling to see their unprecedented success in landing spots in one of the nation’s most competitive programs,” said Eric Stern, the director of operations in Berkeley Law’s Career Development Office.
When the hiring freeze was announced, Stern immediately began working with the DOJ’s Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management to learn how the executive order would affect the honors program. “When I received a call on February 27 from my DOJ colleagues with word that they’d been officially granted an exemption from the hiring freeze, I was so thrilled to be the first person to share this amazing news with our candidates,” Stern said.
Attorney selections are based on elements such as a demonstrated commitment to government service; academic achievement; leadership; journal, moot court and mock trial experience; clinical experience; past employment; and extracurricular activities. Eligible candidates include 3Ls and recent law school alums who entered judicial clerkships, graduate law programs, or qualifying legal fellowships within nine months of graduating.
In all, nine members of the Berkeley Law community received DOJ offers. Of the seven who accepted, two each will join the uber-competitive Civil Rights Division and the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD). This marks the second straight year that ENRD hired two Berkeley Law alums. Each division typically hires 10 to 12 attorneys per year and routinely receives the highest volume of applications among participating sectors.
Honoring fairness and family
For Takemoto, currently a judicial clerk, pursuing work at the DOJ felt like “fulfilling part of my family’s destiny.” Half of his family emigrated to the U.S. from Japan, the other half from Italy. “Our government treated each side quite differently—incarcerating one because of race during World War II while rolling out bold New Deal programs that benefited the other,” he said. “I’m a believer in good government for everyone.”
Takemoto will work for the department’s Federal Programs Branch, which he learned about from Professor Anne O’Connell.
“She worked there earlier in her career and mentioned it in class,” Takemoto explained. “She taught one of my favorite courses, Advanced Administrative Law, and working at Federal Programs is essentially like getting paid to take that class. I couldn’t be luckier.”
When he joins the DOJ, Takemoto will bring with him a strong work ethic strengthened under U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Karen Nelson Moore, and, in his previous clerkship, District of Maryland Judge Theodore Chuang.
“The judges’ care for every detail in every case is immeasurable,” Takemoto said. Their opinions aren’t persuasive because, to borrow a phrase form Justice Scalia, they have ‘straining-to-be-memorable passages.’ They’re persuasive because they are exhaustively reasoned and straightforward.”
Civil rights, day and night
Nash called pursuing the DOJ’s Civil Rights section “a no brainer for me because it has always been my goal to work in the public interest on behalf of underrepresented groups. I’m excited to hone my skills under the guidance of some of the nation’s best litigators.”
She is currently a legal fellow at Alliance for Justice, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., where her projects aim to secure equal access to justice in the federal courts.
“No matter what historical moment we find ourselves in, I think it’s important always to remain diligent about ensuring that our country lives up to its constitutional promise of providing a fair, just and equitable society for all people,” said Nash, who spent two years clerking on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
She credits her time in law school for empowering her professional path, including working on the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice and assisting faculty research on the dissolution of local governments in high-poverty areas. What stands out about her Berkeley Law education?
“The constant encouragement from faculty and fellow students to challenge the status quo and think critically and independently about important legal issues,” Nash said. “I always felt supported to engage creatively with the material and explore ways in which the law can be used to advance positive social change. I think those critical thinking skills make Berkeley Law students a valuable asset in any job.”
A personal path
Sirajee’s career path in consumer justice—and toward the DOJ’s Antitrust Division—is deeply personal. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, she saw her once vibrant neighborhood of mostly middle class, military families in Temecula, California turn into a ghost town as banks foreclosed on people’s homes.
“While details of predatory lending practices and lax regulations later emerged, my neighbors largely blamed themselves for daring to believe that they too could share in the American dream,” Sirajee said.
Largely motivated by this experience, the focus of her professional career arced toward consumer protection. “The work that the DOJ does is impactful and the Antitrust Division in particular has proven its willingness to enforce federal laws that, at the end of the day, are designed to protect consumers,” Sirajee said. “I want to contribute to that work.”
While most DOJ Honors Program selections are recent law school graduates, extraordinary students such as Sirajee form a small percentage. Her impressive Berkeley Law resume—co-chair of the Consumer Advocacy and Protection Society, part of the best oral advocate team in the Lefkowitz Moot Court Competition and research assistant for Professor Catherine Crump, to name just a sampling—underscores why she beat the odds.
Sirajee also credits Ted Mermin ’96, who helped establish the East Bay Community Law Center’s Consumer Justice Clinic, for her current path. “His drive to do good is infectious,” she said. “At a time when I was questioning my own abilities, he pushed me to reach higher and be bolder. He cared about my dream starting a career in public service and because of that, I felt emboldened to try.”
Diverse, dynamic group
Carpenter has a track record of dedication to environmental issues. In law school, she co-directed the Karuk-Berkeley Collaborative, a Student-Initiated Legal Services Project that helps the Karuk Tribe of Northern California’s efforts to preserve its natural and cultural resources.
A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Carpenter said she applied to the DOJ’s environmental section because she wanted “a lead role in creating and enforcing environmentally-protective law and policy. I’m also looking forward to strengthening and supporting the division’s environmental justice efforts, particularly with respect to Indian Country.”
Coghlan, another ENRD selection, said he was drawn to the DOJ’s “great reputation as a place where young lawyers are given the chance to learn and grow by taking on real responsibility.” During his 2L year, he externed at the environmental division’s Regional Office in San Francisco through Berkeley Law’s Field Placement Program, and the experience made a lasting impression.
“The cases I worked on that semester touched on complex issues of law, policy and science—just the sort of interdisciplinary problems that drew me to environmental law in the first place,” Coghlan said. “The lawyers were also incredibly smart and collegial, and they all seemed to like their jobs. In short, ENRD struck me as a great place to work.”
For DeMocker, it was the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division that fed her passion. She’s served as a judicial clerk at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California since December 2015.
“Since long before law school, I viewed DOJ lawyers as uniquely well equipped to fight for equality and opportunity, correct for imbalances that favor the majority and safeguard the fundamental rights and core values on which this country is built,” she said. “This is an immense honor and an incredible opportunity.”