Bishop Brings Unique Experiences to Role as Public Service Center Director
Considering the courtroom’s connection to stagecraft—monologues, dramatic tension, resolution and judgment—it may be no surprise that a former off-Broadway director wanted to become a lawyer. Molly Bishop’s other varied experiences, from working at a firm, to clerking for a district court, to serving in the U.S. Department of Justice, where she represented the United States on terrorism-related matters, have marked her as especially able to handle her new role as director of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center.
Bishop, like many young lawyers with loans to repay after law school, took a circuitous route to public service.
“Life is long and taking a job that is going to pay you a lot of money isn’t going to cut it for most people if that’s the only reason you’re there,” she said. “I think it’s really important to figure out the thing that makes you happy. For a lot of people that thing is public service because it gives you the opportunities to help other people.”
A Chattanooga, Tenn., native, Bishop majored in English at Harvard, where she specialized in drama and began acting in and directing plays. In her senior year, Bishop won a coveted spot directing a play on the mainstage used by the renowned American Repertory Theater—an honor given to only two students each semester. Her take on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” was attended by alums of the program as well as actors John Lithgow, Dixie Carter, and Hal Holbrook, and director Robert Brustein, a founding director of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory Theaters. While some might think such a starry start would lead to instant success after college, “the truth of it is it’s not easy at all.”
After graduating, Bishop entered the directing program at Northwestern, where she planned to earn her M.F.A. in three years. Only three people enter the program each year; her classmates were a professional director looking to teach and a TV director looking to get experience with stage directing. “What I realized from working with the other folks in my program is that it’s an incredibly hard lifestyle,” she said. “In order to stay in theater, you have to sacrifice a lot,” including the security of health insurance and a steady paycheck.
Bishop took a leave of absence after her first year at Northwestern and decided to give directing one more try in New York, where she shared a one-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen with two friends. She started her own theater company, working jobs during the day to pay the rent and directing off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway plays at night. She assisted in one Broadway show, “The Secret Garden,” where she saw that even the award-winning director was worried about her next rent check. Soon after, Bishop decided to take the LSATs and enjoy the luxury of steady work.
Bishop was accepted at Columbia, the only law school to which she applied, in 1993, but directed one more year before devoting her life to law. At Columbia she enjoyed public speaking-related classes like trial advocacy, and also joined the Columbia Law Review.
“Part of what I really liked about directing was that it’s fun to be in a job where you have to think on your feet…and being in a courtroom is a similar kind of thing,” she said. “I even liked the Socratic method in law school. It’s a satisfying feeling when you really hit the nail on the head when someone calls on you.”
After graduation, Bishop clerked for the late Judge Eugene H. Nickerson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, at a time the court was hearing trials like the Abner Louima police brutality case. She then worked for Covington & Burling at its Washington, D.C., and New York offices for four years, where she learned “how to be a lawyer.” But then Sept. 11 happened. “I thought, oh, ok…here’s a cause that I care about—patriotism, the United States—that kind of took me by surprise,” said Bishop, a self-avowed liberal. “I also realized national security law was clearly going to be an area of the law that was going to be developing really fast and was going to be really interesting.”
She applied to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, where a former colleague was working in the Office of Intelligence and Policy Review (OIPR). OIPR was overwhelmed by the need for more attorneys and quickly hired her. In her new position she represented the United States before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which hears cases on top-secret warrants.
“It was also really interesting to get to see everything that happened after Sept. 11 and the efforts that were being made to combat terrorism in the United States,” she said. “The thing that was satisfying about it was every day feeling like I made a difference.
“I felt really lucky that I had the education that I had and I felt like I needed to give something back, and I was pleased to be able to give it back to my country.”
In 2004 Bishop married a Charlottesville resident and found a job at the Law School co-teaching oral advocacy with her former Covington colleague Robert Sayler. She began counseling students and alumni on clerkships and government jobs in 2005.
Sayler and Bishop’s class defines public speaking broadly to include making a presentation to a client, job interviews, and even informal persuasion at cocktail parties. “All of those different kinds of experiences can make you into a better lawyer, because they’re all just about getting up onto your feet, trying to figure out how to talk, and not being too self-conscious about making a fool out of yourself,” she said. Bishop frequently uses her theater background to develop exercises for students.
“The more comfortable you are thinking on your feet and being able to come up with something articulate under pressure, the smarter you’re going to seem, the more effective you’re going to be. I think that’s why a lot of law schools use the Socratic method,” she said. “It’s not enough to just look at the material and then in the quiet of your own little office be able to write an essay about it. There’s more to it than that. You’ve got to be able to also talk about it.”
Bishop is an “extraordinarily gifted teacher,” said Sayler. “In class she brings the perspective of a trained dramatist, having both been a trial lawyer and a trained drama student and director….She’s just a bundle of presence and enthusiasm, and has a love for people that is a pleasure to be around.” Her students “are all absolutely beholden to Molly.”
Professor Earl C. Dudley, Jr, who as chair of the clerkships committee works closely with Bishop in placing students with judges, said she’s built on her predecessors’ efforts in launching the new clerkship application system. “She makes it run very smoothly and keeps track of the students who have applied and tries to help them whenever they encounter problems,” he said. “Molly saves everybody’s life—she’s wonderful.”
In counseling job seekers, Bishop has practiced with students nervous about their interviewing skills as well as those seeking to practice their moot court skills. Often students’ biggest mistake is not answering the question interviewers ask because they’ve prepared answers in advance. “Public speaking is more than just reciting a script—it’s also having a dialogue with your audience,” she said. The second mistake students make is not preparing enough. Public speaking isn’t all natural talent, she said. “It’s also something that is a craft, that you can learn and prepare for.... In a job interview, for example, you should know everything on your resume cold, and you should know as much as you can about the person interviewing you and the job you are interviewing for.”
While many law students nationwide feel pressure to take jobs at major law firms to pay off law school or undergraduate loans, Bishop advises students to pursue jobs they like.
“The reason that public service ends up being more satisfying for the people that go into it is because you’re doing more than making a dollar—you’re making a difference,” she said.
• Reported by Mary Wood