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Despite what you might hear on radio talk shows, government jobs and elected positions are not a gateway to easy riches. For attorneys who work for local, state, or federal government, positions tend to be secure and benefits—health insurance, vacations, and pensions—are sound, although the pay may be modest compared to that for a seasoned litigator at a large private firm. For elected officials, job security ranges from iffy for newcomers to nearly ironclad for long-time incumbents; many attorneys who are elected officials—including those interviewed here—keep their day jobs. The following Cardozo graduates in elected and appointed government jobs say the payoff can be powerful: there’s the excitement of representing the government in major, complex cases; the opportunity to help constituents and taxpayers; and the ability to change law for the better, among other things.

Fay Leoussis ’79, who is chief of the 400- employee Tort Division of the New York City Law Department, knows the challenges of bureaucracy better than most. Her office defends the city against personal injury cases; pending cases number 33,000, down from a mindboggling backlog of 60,000 in the mid-’90s. The cases can range from injuries caused by broken sidewalks to casualties of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. About 8,000 new suits are filed against the city each year.

“It takes a lot of patience,” Leoussis said of her division’s caseload. “We obviously can’t win them all, but every time we do, we know we have just saved taxpayer dollars that can be reallocated to other public services.”

Her office is free to do the right thing. “We will not pursue something if we believe it is wrong,” Leoussis said. If the department’s Risk Management Unit identifies a pattern, for example, of dangerous sidewalks or roadways, the city is notified and repairs are ordered. “When confronted with a situation where we believe the city was wrong, or the situation was wrong, we don’t pursue it [in court]—that’s also a positive feeling.”

Leoussis has worked for the Law Department (also called the Office of the Corporation Counsel) since graduating with Cardozo’s first class. Starting as an assistant corporation counsel in the Appeals Division, she rose to chief of the Tort Division in January 2001.

In college, she found she had a bent toward public service, and aimed for a legal services career. After Cardozo, she applied to the Law Department on the advice of a friend and never left. “Once I got here, I really liked it. I liked the people, I liked the work; it has never ceased being interesting and challenging.”

Some might find “challenging” an understatement. Dealing with 200 attorneys and an equal number of support staff along with handling a mega-caseload is not easy. “I’m not going to tell you that it is,” Leoussis said. “Organizational skills are key, along with an ability to tune things out. Put blinders on. You have to focus on priorities. You have to realize you’re doing your best, compartmentalize, and have mental discipline.” When she started her current job, she worked 60 to 70 hours week; she’s since whittled that down to 50 or so.

Cardozo graduates are well represented in the Law Department, Leoussis said. At last count, there were at least 45, and although Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo is a Columbia Law School graduate, he is descended from a cousin of Benjamin N. Cardozo. The department’s Appeals Division has an internship program that frequently hires Cardozo students, and if a Cardozo employee organized a similar program for the Tort Division, Leoussis would “love it.”

Scott Sisun '01, LL.M. '03

Several Cardozo alumni have federal jobs in Washington, DC. Scott Sisun ’01, who received an LL.M. in intellectual property from Cardozo in 2003, found that Cardozo’s intellectual property program prepared him well for his current job as a trademark examining attorney at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

He believes his Cardozo background helped him land the position in what has become a very competitive field. Sisun and the other 300-plus US trademark examining attorneys review and analyze every trademark application to the USPTO to make sure it meets federal requirements. They must make sure the mark is distinctive and doesn’t cause confusion or appear vague, immoral, or scandalous; they recommend approval or opposition and meet with applicants and their lawyers to resolve issues. Sisun said he likes the position’s creative aspects and the chance to work with the pro se applicants, who are often cutting-edge entrepreneurs.

Trademark law seems to attract pop culture fans like him, Sisun said, who get excited about new and interesting “marks” and working with nascent businesses. “Of course, we’ll get the big Xerox application, but we also get the applicant who designs his own furniture, is about to go public, and wants to make sure he can put his mark on his product.”

In his undergraduate days, Sisun thought he wanted to be an advertising copywriter and interned at two ad agencies. Then he decided he wanted more of a challenge, and enrolled at Cardozo. His jobs after graduation included clerking for a New Jersey Superior Court judge and being an associate at Pavia & Harcourt, an intellectual property boutique firm, and at Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker. He performed a variety of tasks for the firms, always making sure he gained trademark and copyright experience. “In my early jobs, if 25 percent of my work was trademark law, I was still happy,” he said.

The result is a job he loves, with decent pay, flexible hours, and recognition for good work. He advises Cardozo students who are interested in trademark and copyright law to stick with it. “There will be bumps in the road and hurdles, but trust that things will work out.”

Sonya Levine ’86 is a US Department of Labor attorney who helps enforce Title I of ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. She has participated in federal investigations and enforcement proceedings against fiduciaries that have breached their duties to employer-sponsored pension and health plans, including corporate sponsors such as Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossing.

Levine is one of 30 trial attorneys in the Plan Benefits Security Division and one of a half-dozen who worked on various aspects of the Enron case. A bankruptcy lawyer by training, she was actively involved in the portion of the government’s ERISA case that led to a settlement of bankruptcy claims against Enron itself for $134 million. The bankruptcy settlement funds will be distributed to former Enron workers and retirees through the company’s retirement plans.

“The complexity of Enron’s accounting and corporate structures was breathtaking,” Levine said. “It was eyeopening.”

Until July 2001, Levine worked for private firms, usually representing corporations and individuals in bankruptcy matters. Besides financial remuneration, there are a lot of differences between private and public jobs, she said. “There are small, petty frustrations in government that you don’t find in the private sector, but there is more flexibility, especially for people who have families. Also, there’s something nice to be said for representing the United States of America.”

One of those benefits is a chance to participate in cases that reach the Supreme Court. For example, in January 2004 the Supreme Court heard arguments in Yates v. Hendon, a case involving ERISA and bankruptcy issues. Levine and other DOL attorneys helped formulate the government’s position articulated in an amicus brief and argued by the Solicitor General. “It’s an interesting opportunity that you wouldn’t necessarily get in the private sector,” Levine said.

Levine, who was raised in Brooklyn, is the daughter of two lawyers who handle trusts, estates, commercial transactions, and real estate. She took several bankruptcy courses at Cardozo and interned as a student for the US Bankruptcy Court in New York’s Southern District. Her advice to current students interested in public sector law is to seek internships, like the ones at DOL and other government agencies, in the field of their interest.

“We may not pay as well as the private sector, but we can provide good experience,” Levine said.

Delfa Castillo ’92 was, until recently, a trial attorney for the US Department of Justice, representing the federal government in appeals before the US Court of International Trade, United Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and United States Court of Federal Claims.

Castillo received her law degree relatively late in life, 10 years after receiving her bachelor’s degree and a year after her own daughter graduated from college. As a child, Castillo and her nine siblings helped their migrant farmworker parents in the orchards and vegetable fields of Michigan. Later, the family returned to their permanent home in Texas, where Castillo finished high school, married, and started a family.

After a move to New York, she earned her B.A. in early childhood education from Brooklyn College in 1982. She worked as assistant director of a nonprofit tutorial program for low-income children on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, earned a master’s in reading specialization from Bank Street College of Education in 1984, and became director of the tutorial program the same year. After several years at the tutorial program, helping children and their parents and organizing volunteers, Castillo decided to try law school. She enrolled at Cardozo and found an interest in international business transactions, especially in discussions about trade and displaced workers. That led to a judicial clerkship for the US Court of International Trade, and then to her US Justice Department job in 1996. At DOJ, she has been a team leader and member of the trial teams handling the complex and lengthy Winstar litigation, a breach of contract action filed by savings and loan associations against the federal government that continues today.

Castillo’s long and winding road to the law has made her a champion of women who overcome difficult odds. “I have spoken before teenage girls in the Bronx as well as women who may cross my path, and I encourage them to dare to dream and make their dreams come true,” she said.

She is about to start a new chapter in her life. Castillo quit her DOJ job on March 17 to take a break and tend to health problems. She might return to working for the government or begin her own law practice, but she’s not quitting over dissatisfaction with her old job.

“It’s nice to say that you represent the government and feel that what you are doing is helping the entire country and keeping government expenses down in legitimate and valid ways. Also, you get to travel and you go up against some of the best private law firms. I would say that government attorneys as a group are as good or better than the private firms out there.”

Castillo is not alone in that assessment. In the case of the Winstar litigation, a February 2004 article noted that the government’s aggressive defense against the thrifts had succeeded, with one observer saying that the DOJ had done a “heroic job” in saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

“What’s great about [working for DOJ] is that it gives you a lot of autonomy,” Castillo said. “In my case, I got a lot of responsibility off the bat.”

As for politicians, it’s not surprising that lawyers dominate the ranks of elected officials. Scott McCoy ’01, one of seven attorneys in the 29-member Utah State Senate, said he has found his Cardozo experience immensely helpful. “Court basics are so incredibly valuable when you want to serve in a legislative body. You’re actually writing law that the courts are going to look at and interpret.” McCoy is a full-time associate at the Salt Lake City office of an international law firm, Howrey LLP, handling complex commercial litigation and federal securities matters. “They’re really great,” McCoy said about Howrey. “They understand the value of having me in the State Senate.” That means the firm exempts him from billable hour requirements for the two months in late January through March when the Legislature meets.

Delfa Castill '92 Scott McCoy '01

McCoy, a Democrat, took a rather unorthodox route to public office in Utah, where politics are dominated by conservative Republicans. McCoy grew up in Missouri and Oklahoma, where he was drawn to politics in high school. As a graduate student at George Washington University in 1992, he began working for the US House Agriculture Committee, then as a legislative director for Iowa Republican Rep. Tom Latham. He left Washington, DC, to enter Cardozo in 1998; after graduating, he worked for a year for a Wall Street law firm. While living in New York City, McCoy met his partner, Mark Barr, and decided to leave the Republican party. “My life and politics were different and more in line with the Democratic party,” he said.

McCoy, who has relatives in Utah, accepted an offer to clerk for former Utah Supreme Court Justice Leonard Russon. When Justice Russon retired in 2003, McCoy joined a boutique Salt Lake City law firm that eventually merged with Howrey.

McCoy got involved in Utah politics as head of the “Don’t Amend Alliance,” which opposed an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Although Utah voters overwhelmingly passed the amendment in 2004, McCoy was noticed by Utah Democrats, and when party delegates met in February 2005 to replace a state senator who was quitting for health reasons, they picked McCoy over two other candidates. The choice was surprising for several reasons: McCoy had decided to run for the seat only the night before; the incumbent had favored her husband, a longtime Democratic leader, to succeed her; and McCoy is openly gay. When a newspaper notified a conservative Republican senator the next day of McCoy’s victory, his startled reaction was, “The gay?” McCoy later ordered a personalized license plate that reads: The Gay.

More than a year later, the phrase “first openly gay Utah state senator” is no longer automatically attached to McCoy’s name in news stories. The label is revived occasionally when the legislature takes up an antigay measure, but for the most part, McCoy is accepted, even by the Republican who inspired McCoy’s license plate. “Now I’m just a Democrat from Salt Lake City,” McCoy said. “I certainly advocate for gays, but it’s annoying when that’s the only thing people think you’re about.” Other issues he has taken up include requiring health plans to cover birth control for women, studying Utah’s electronic waste problem, expanding veterans benefits, and repealing criminal penalties for slander and libel. McCoy will run for a full, four-year State Senate term this year, and has been asked to run for mayor of Salt Lake City and for Congress.

David Fried ’05 also caught the political bug at an early age. He became involved in Democratic political activities and community organizations even before high school in Spring Valley, NY, an ethnically diverse, working-class village in Rockland County. As an undergraduate at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY, he was one of several volunteer advance aides to President Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore, traveling ahead of the First Family to destinations as far away as India to help in last-minute trip planning. “It was fantastic,” he said. “It was an unforgettable experience to work with them.” After Clinton left office, Fried worked part time in the Rockland County Legislature, and when the incumbent representing Spring Valley retired, Fried leaped at the opportunity, defeating four opponents in the Democratic primary in a strongly Democratic district.

When he won office in 2003 at the age of 24, Fried was one of the youngest county legislators in state history. He was also a second-year student at Cardozo. “I was passionate about both—legal studies and serving. I found that the two responsibilities complemented each other well. The Law School was very accommodating, and I had the intention of running since I started, so I was able to plan my academic calendar around my legislative responsibilities.”

At Cardozo, Fried concentrated on constitutional law but took a variety of classes. Courses in state and local taxation and legal writing were especially helpful, he said. “All law students everywhere have an enormous responsibility to public service,” Fried said. “All of us should appreciate the opportunity we have in law school and then, as an attorney, to act responsibly as the public servants we are.”

Being a Rockland County legislator is a full-time job, although the Legislature runs on a reduced schedule in summer. Fried supplements his political job as an adjunct professor teaching business law and American government at Westchester Community College.

Fried said he will run for re-election in 2007. After that? “I’d like to continue to do my best to serve people. I’ll take public service as far as my constituents are willing to take me.”

For Michael Wildes ’89, Cardozo is a family affair. His father, Leon, has been an adjunct professor at Cardozo for 25 years, teaching Immigration Law and directing the Immigration Law Clinic. He met his wife, Amy Messer ’91, at Cardozo, in his father’s class, and all of them—father, son, and wife—work as immigration lawyers at the family’s Manhattan firm, Wildes & Weinberg. But Wildes is probably better known, at least in New Jersey, as mayor of Englewood and as a potential congressional candidate.

“My interest in public service has centered around leaving a legacy of leadership to my children so that they will feel engaged in the process and interested in changing policy where it needs to be changed,” he said. Wildes, who has represented some high-profile “terrorist defectors”—Saudis and others who have provided intelligence to US law enforcement— sees himself as a proponent and protector of national security. In that role, he has appeared on cable television news shows commenting on international terrorism.

Wildes began his elected career as an Englewood councilman in 1999. He was re-elected in 2002, and then elected mayor the next year. He was sworn into office by New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, one of many leading Democrats—others include Edward Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Joseph Lieberman—who have recognized Wildes’ fund-raising prowess for Democratic candidates. Wildes expects to run for another three-year term as Englewood mayor in 2006, but is already raising money for a congressional run in 2008.

Wildes’ high-flying style has drawn attention in Englewood, population 26,000, but he is not fazed by his hometown critics or Democratic party regulars who want him to wait his turn. “I have never apologized for my ambition or passion to serve,” he said. “Public service is a public trust. You always serve at the pleasure of the community that placed you there; they are the ones to whom I answer.”

After obtaining his law degree, Wildes worked as a federal prosecutor for four years before joining the family firm. His advice to Cardozo students who want to enter politics? “There’s no substitute for digging in and running for a position, whether it’s local, regional, or national. Success in all of those arenas has everything to do with your enthusiasm and drive.”