News & Events
Posted Dec. 11, 2013

Young Alums Make an Impact on Capitol Hill

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Laurel Sakai '11, Mike Buchwald '06 and Lauren Prieb '11

Laurel Sakai '11, Mike Buchwald '06 and Lauren Prieb '11 are among the University of Virginia School of Law's graduates who are making an impact on national issues on Capitol Hill.

An internship after high school literally got Lauren Prieb's foot in the door on Capitol Hill, but her law degree from the University of Virginia helped launch her career there.

Contact: Mary Wood

After working as a doorkeeper for the Senate before college, Prieb, who went on to graduate from the Law School in 2011, knew where she wanted to work.

"I watched the Senate all day and loved it, so ever since then I've wanted to go back in some capacity," she said.

Among the Law School's graduates who work in public service, several in recent years have found their way to Capitol Hill, where they fulfill their passion for policy and make an impact on national issues.

Prieb is now working as counsel on the staff of Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Every day I'm doing something to prepare the senator for nominations work," Prieb said. "A lot of my day is [reading through a nominee's file] and trying to figure out what their judicial philosophy is or will be."

Prieb, a Phoenix, Az., native who earned her undergraduate degree in English from Arizona State University,  first landed a position with the Senate Judiciary Committee after law school as a Robert F. Kennedy  '51 Public Service Fellow. The program provides a salary to graduates working for a year in qualifying public service employment. In Prieb's case, the fellowship led to a permanent position with the Judiciary Committee.

Her day-to-day work involves vetting the federal judicial nominees, writing questions to ask the nominees in hearings, attending hearings, and writing speeches about the nominee for committee meetings and floor votes.

"The nominees are nominated for lifetime positions, and it's really an honor to get to vet them and consider whether they'll be a good judge or not," she said. "I love the hearings. After working through their file, it's great to finally meet them, to talk with them, to evaluate their character and demeanor to a certain extent. … It's a very public process, it takes a lot of boldness and guts for these nominees to put themselves out there in front of the country."

Prieb said her legal education plays a role in her job as well, as she sifts through a nominee's writings and cases.

Alumni Tips for Getting a Job on Capitol Hill

Most employers on Capitol Hill look for some sort of political experience when hiring new staff, Prieb said, such as past experience working for a state legislature or on a campaign.

"No matter what party you are, they also want to see that you really care about Democratic or Republican issues," she said. "Most offices want you to pick a side and be really loyal to it."

Buchwald agreed that gaining experience early helps.

"If you are interested in politics, Congress, intelligence or government service broadly speaking, find a way to get involved while you are in school or during the summers," he said. "You never know when you will be in the right place at the right time to find a job that is the perfect fit for you."

Sakai added that while having a law degree isn't necessary for most positions, "it's certainly helpful for getting your foot in the door."

Working on Capitol Hill is "not the most high-paying of jobs, even within the federal government sphere — so I think that really taking a look and making sure that it's something you're passionate about doing is important," Sakai said. But "it's a wonderful experience; I would recommend it to anyone who thinks that they might want to do it."

"I had so many law professors who taught me how to analyze and evaluate something to see whether it's good judicial reasoning or not," she said. "I appreciate that from my law school education."

Though her job may evolve with the Senate's new filibuster rule change, Prieb said she is looking forward to many years on the Hill.

"I definitely love the Hill right now," she said. "I have great co-workers, great work."

Like Prieb, Laurel Sakai '11 became a Kennedy Fellow after graduating and worked for the National Quality Forum, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting standardized measures for health care performance.

She then landed a position working for Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, where she began developing her experience in health law policy. After Akaka retired, she became the lead on health policy with Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

"There's a lot of responsibility in keeping track of all the legislation and all the priorities of the constituents, and the areas that my boss is interested in — he's a very active member on health care issues," she said. "One of the biggest challenges is balancing all of that and making sure that I'm able to devote enough time to all the issues we're working on now."

Sakai, who hails from Hawaii and whose parents are a doctor and a retired nurse, became interested in health law policy during her time as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California.

At USC she noticed that other people's experience with health care was different from her own, because she had fairly easy access to health care in Hawaii.

"For many people, especially near, say, Los Angeles, it's a really different story. It sort of piqued my interest as an area that I thought it would be interesting to work in," she said. "Working on the Hill and working on access to health care issues, I couldn't have found a better fit."

Sakai said her work "is very fast-paced, which leads to some long hours," even before the recent launch of the online federal health insurance marketplace.

"It seems like every day there's a new wrinkle that comes up" due to the complexities of health policy, she said. But her job is also "a really a great opportunity; I'm getting to work on a lot of things I had no idea I would ever get to work on, so I'm really enjoying it."

Sakai said she draws on her legal education in her job as well.

"I look at some of my Administrative Law notes to this day," she said. "Depending on what courses you have taken, it can be incredibly helpful."

Between graduating from Yale with a history degree and attending law school at UVA, Mike Buchwald '06 worked for Sen. Dianne Feinstein for three years doing legislative work related to the California energy crisis and changes to airport security after Sept. 11, among other issues.

After law school, Buchwald, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, clerked for a year in Los Angeles for a district court judge on the Central District of California, then worked at O’Melveny & Myers in Washington, D.C., before leaving to become a counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence when Feinstein became its chairman.

"I was her first new hire to join the existing committee staff," Buchwald said. "I was always interested in national security law, so the job offer was too good to turn down."

Buchwald is one of two counsels for the Senate majority who works on legislation, legal issues and other matters that come before the committee. He also serves as Feinstein's "designee," which involves briefing her on daily intelligence matters and preparing her for the twice-weekly classified hearings where the directors of the various intelligence agencies testify before the committee.

"The busiest days are when there are leaks of classified information in the press — for example, from Edward Snowden — multiple committee hearings and meetings to prepare for and attend with Sen. Feinstein (including her duties on the Judiciary Committee), legislative debate and votes on the Senate floor regarding current national security issues like Syria, FISA and Guantanamo, and sometimes oversight visits to the intelligence agencies, such as the CIA," he said. "Hopefully not all of those activities fall on the same day, but it’s possible. And that is what keeps each day interesting."

Buchwald said he relies on his law school experience for all aspects of his job, particularly the oversight and investigations work the committee performs.

"Whether the assignment is a legal analysis or evaluating an intelligence assessment, I try to make sure the committee is being thorough, fair and rigorous in its work," he said. "One advantage of this committee is that it is uniquely collegial and bipartisan in its function, much like my UVA Law experience. Each staffer is hired with the approval of both the Democratic chairman and Republican vice-chairman, we share bipartisan office space, and more often than not, we work together as a joint bipartisan staff to oversee the 16 different intelligence agencies."