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Courts & Justice

Meaningful Work: How the pursuit of fairness leads some lawyers to the DOJ

Natalie Runyon  Director of Enterprise Content and Talent, Culture & Inclusion Strategist in Market Insights for the Thomson Reuters Institute

Natalie Runyon  Director of Enterprise Content and Talent, Culture & Inclusion Strategist in Market Insights for the Thomson Reuters Institute

In our ongoing series, "Meaningful Work", we examine how government service is great for those attorneys who are driven by purposeful work and career happiness

In reading the U.S. Department of Justice’s mission, it is hard not to get chills in digesting the magnitude of it. In particular, the parts about “defending the interests of the United States according to the law” and ensuring “fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans,” produce a resounding emotional response on its significance.

It is this very mission that inspires thousands of attorneys to join the department. Jordan Howlette and Jessica Massey are two of these lawyers.

The DOJ as a ‘beacon of hope’

Howlette pursued his dream of becoming a Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney, after serving in the military and taking the bar exam while deployed in Afghanistan. He says that he viewed the agency as a “beacon of hope, in that the agency served as a bulwark against those seeking to harm others and a staunch defender of our civil liberties.”

Now, working on the civil side of the tax division as the litigating arm of the Internal Revenue Service, Howlette says he finds meaning each day because he gets to pursue justice through prosecutions by “seeking injunctions against dishonest tax return preparers who promoted fraudulent tax schemes and arrangements.” Many victims are from low-income backgrounds and are usually people of color, and Howlette says he finds this aspect of his work in particular, meaningful as an attorney of color himself.

Massey’s work for the DOJ as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) affords those attorneys a unique opportunity to make a difference in their community, she explains. “Of course, AUSAs strive to hold people accountable for their crimes, but we also partner with law enforcement agencies on the federal, state, and local level to implement programs to prevent and control crime. These combined actions have a quantifiable impact on the daily lives of people living in our community.”

Autonomy, prosecutorial discretion & development opportunities

From a career development and litigation experience perspective, Howlette — as an early career attorney himself — believes his DOJ employment has allowed him tremendous autonomy to grow in comparison to private practice. From day one, he was the lead on his assigned cases. He is the person determining if justice is served by applying the law to the facts and circumstances of the case; and more specifically, he has the prosecutorial discretion to decide the direction of the case and how the arguments are framed.

For example, he had one case that involved a business owner who had a significant amount of unpaid taxes that accumulated while the owner was experiencing a series of dire health problems that impacted his ability to pay the back taxes and penalties. Howlette had the autonomy to come up with an equitable strategic solution to avoid taking the business owner’s assets, including his home, and to make recommendations for the settlement. Howlette says he did not see justice being served by us taking this person’s house to collect the back tax revenue when the home served as the residence of the business owner’s kids and grandkids. “This is the discretion that that I find to be very, very meaningful in my day-to-day work,” he adds.

The DOJ also is a great for training and development, both lawyers say. “The training at DOJ truly is second to none,” says Massey. Further, the department has personnel that ensure that each attorney is pursuing a career development plan. “Leadership is also great about checking in to make sure employees are on track to hit their performance goals and to offer new opportunities to work on different types of cases,” she explains.

Collegial work environment & informal mentoring

In addition to his high level of job satisfaction, the DOJ’s work culture is extremely welcoming, Howlette describes. “From my first day on the job, I felt like I was part of a family here in the tax division — a family filled with very intelligent, humble, and caring individuals.” He says that he felt a sense of community, in part, because of the mission. Also, he says he always felt comfortable seeking guidance on the litigation strategy of a case or about getting advice on a career question because of the supportive, harmonious culture.

For Massey, who started at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2019 after working as an in-house lawyer, the experience was similar, as she was welcomed by an entire team of peer mentors. “We are constantly helping and bouncing ideas off each other,” she says. “It’s great being part of a team where everyone wants to see you succeed.”

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