With Support from UVA Law's Kennedy Fellowships, Graduates' Careers in Public Service Bloom
Cassandra Maximous had her heart set on a career as a U.S. government attorney, but with a federal hiring freeze in place as she approached graduation from the University of Virginia School of Law in 2013, few such jobs were available to newly minted lawyers. Still, she had one more option to get her foot in the door. Soon after graduating she began working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a Robert F. Kennedy '51 Public Service Fellow.
"A few months into my fellowship, I had the confidence to ask about staying with ICE after the fellowship ended. After six months at the agency as a fellow, I was offered a full-time federal position," said Maximous, who is now working at the Department of Homeland Security as an associate legal advisor with ICE's Office of the Principal Legal Advisor. "While a resume can state past experience and accomplishments, nothing compares to showing your future employer how qualified for the job you are."
Created in 2007 and funded by alumni and friends of the Law School, the Kennedy Fellowships provide a salary of $31,500 to recent graduates working for a year in qualifying public service employment. Fellows work in legal aid offices, prosecutors' and public defenders' offices, federal agencies, courts and nonprofit organizations across the country. (List of current and recent representative employers.)
Like Maximous, many of the Kennedy Fellows from the Class of 2013 are now making an impact in a range of public-interest roles.
"For students eager to launch a career in public service, working at a law firm immediately after graduation may not be the best option," said Assistant Dean for Public Service Annie Kim, director of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center at UVA Law. "As Kennedy Fellows, they can pursue the jobs they most value, doing exactly the kind of work they want at the top nonprofits and government agencies in the country. That experience is game-changing for their careers."
Maximous, who is from the Virginia suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., got her first taste of life as a government lawyer while interning at the Justice Department's Appellate Tax Division the summer after her first year of law school. Now she is part of ICE's Commercial and Administrative Law Division, where she works on contract reviews, appropriations and fiscal inquiries, negotiating inter- and intra-agency agreements, and litigating before the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals, among other matters.
"My favorite aspects of my job stem from the fact that I work with a small group," she said. "Because of this, I have a great deal of autonomy over my work and I have the amazing opportunity to handle central aspects of my cases. For example, I recently conducted a corporate designee deposition of the CEO of a company."
Fellow 2013 Kennedy Fellow Joe Gammello said he realized during law school that he wanted to work in public service in the political arena.
"I wanted to see a direct result of what I'm doing and how it affects people's lives," said Gammello, who originally hails from Pequot Lakes, Minnesota.
During his fellowship, Gammello worked for the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, where he gained experience in analyzing the pros and cons of various bills under consideration, preparing committee members for hearings, and researching judicial nominees and executive appointees who require Senate approval, such as Jeh Johnson, now secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
The Kennedy Fellowship "really provides an opportunity to demonstrate to the committee that you're capable of doing the work and that you add value," he said. "It's an opportunity to prove yourself."
As his fellowship concluded, Gammello was in a position to secure another role on Capitol Hill.
"The Hill is a very difficult place to break into — it's hard to even hear of an opening, let alone get your foot in the door," Gammello said. "But once you're in, you develop a network of contacts."
Through that network and a fellow UVA Law classmate, he learned of an opening with the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services, where he now works as an attorney with the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, focusing on everything from oversight of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to investigations into terrorist financing issues.
"The fellowship provided me with the opportunity to work in a dream job that I don't think I otherwise would have come across," Gammello said. "I'm absolutely loving what I'm doing. I find the work interesting and challenging, and believe I'm making a difference."
The market for entry-level public interest jobs in New York City is also highly competitive, said 2013 graduate Belinda Luu — particularly for someone who had not lived or worked in the city before. Luu, an Orlando native, broke into that market as a Kennedy Fellow with the New York Legal Assistance Group, where she worked on impact litigation, primarily class actions related to consumer issues.
Luu said she also benefited from the growing network of Kennedy Fellows. When she began looking at positions in legal services, the Law School's Public Service Center put her in touch with past fellows in the field, which led her to learn more about the efforts of NYLAG.
By the time she applied for a full-time position at MFY Legal Services, "I was able to articulate why I was perfect for the job," she said. "The Kennedy Fellowship gave me the freedom to prove myself in a very competitive market."
She now helps low-income New Yorkers who are facing foreclosure. She is in court every week (New York is a judicial foreclosure jurisdiction), but also has time to pursue systemic work. She is second chair on an affirmative litigation case representing victims of predatory mortgage lending before the Southern District of New York — "an exciting opportunity for a new attorney," she said.
Every day is different, whether she's calling clients, preparing for court, negotiating with lenders, or researching and writing.
"I couldn't be more pleased with the job that I have," Luu said. "I love the work that I do every day — it's extremely rewarding and challenging at the same time. I have the Kennedy Fellowship to thank for that."
Local government offered 2013 Kennedy Fellow Denise Letendre another path to realize her goals. Letendre's interest in public service runs in her family. The St. Louis native's grandfather was an elected official in the Missouri legislature and her parents passed on the value of service.
The Kennedy Fellowship allowed Letendre to step into a government job right out of law school by working for the Henrico County Attorney's Office. Her fellowship started in September 2013, and she was hired as an assistant attorney by April.
"Government was a great way to really serve the broad community and all the constituents in a way that was meaningful and a good fit for me," she said.
Like law school, where she enjoyed dabbling in a variety of classes, her job allows her to constantly learn by working on a range of legal issues. She represents the departments of Public Works, Public Utilities and Building Inspections in Henrico, and her duties include tort defense, environmental compliance work, reviewing contracts and even social services work.
"I was always one of those people who never knew if they wanted to do transactional or litigation, and this way I get to do a little bit of both," Letendre said.
When a position opened at the office, she was able to stand out because of the experience she gained and relationships she had built.
"Even if I hadn't gotten the position here, the fellowship was really valuable because it gave me the flexibility within the office to try out a bunch of different areas of law," she said. "I got thrown into a lot of different subject matters and learned a lot through that experience."
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