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Rising Stars: Proud Policy: A Lawyer in the New York State Judiciary

By Laura Gordon

After working in the New York Legislature and then earning dual graduate degrees, David served with the Court of Appeals, worked his way up the ladder, and today is deputy legislative counsel for the New York Judiciary.

Name: David Markus
School: Williams; Harvard Law and Kennedy School of Government
Major: Political Science and Environmental Studies
Years Out of College: 10+
Title: Deputy Legislative Counsel?
Company: New York State Judiciary?
First Steps

David says: "My first job was actually to find a job: I graduated unemployed when my position fell through just before graduation. I returned home and sent out resumes. By networking I connected with a local university that sponsored an environmental litigation clinic for law students. As a dual major in political science and environmental studies, the opportunity sounded interesting... but I didn't expect Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (a leading environmental attorney and JFK's nephew) to walk through the door. Somehow I managed to keep my composure and he hired me as a policy analyst for one of his environmental organizational clients. Over the next year, I helped prosecute cases against polluters, lobby government and build coalitions. The experience taught me that I had a knack for the law and for public policy, and my work exposed me to policymakers including members of my state legislature. One offered me an opportunity to become her legislative director--a job that would put me front-and-center in state government with a portfolio that included not just the environment but also campaign finance, election reform, education, the works. Working with the New York State Assembly for a few years, I learned to draft and lobby bills, experienced the best and worst of working in state government, and decided that I had a passion for improving the world in my 'backyard' rather than going to Washington."

David decided he wanted to do a dual-degree program (JD for law, MPP for government) because "his work with the environmental litigation clinic had taught me that many law students and lawyers lack the skills and experience needed to advocate for policy change." Once he had the two degrees, David decided that he wanted to work for his state's high court: New York State Court of Appeals. David says, "My clerkship gave me a front-row seat in some of my state's most challenging legal and policy challenges at the intersection of all three branches of government. Through my work, I met the state's Chief Judge, who after my clerkship invited me to stay and assist in managing the New York State Judiciary. That was 2002: I'm now deputy legislative counsel for the New York State Judiciary, advocating on behalf of the justice system before the Legislature and the Governor, and working to make the justice system function better (e.g. more fairly, more efficiently) on behalf of litigants and their causes, especially the most vulnerable New Yorkers who tend to get 'trapped' in the system."

Challenges Faced

David says that "one challenge was simply being young. In many fields of law and policy, some veterans (and often the most influential ones) tend to see 'young' people as sources of energy and legwork but not necessarily ideas or influence. It took time before veterans saw me not as an office mascot or an over-eager kid but as a real partner. Until then, I had to learn the ropes and sometimes endure being treated unfairly, but the experience was invaluable in training me to work with difficult people. Now in my early 30s, I still experience the same dynamics because in some fields anyone under 50 is a 'kid.' The skills I learned as a new college graduate hold me in good stead: to be respectful, sometimes self-deprecating, but always to know your stuff as though you yourself were completely responsible for the end result (even if you're not)."

My Experience

As a deputy legislative counsel for the New York State Judiciary, David says that "the best thing about my job is that I have no 'typical' day: I enjoy constant changes of pace, issue and dynamic. As partly responsible for helping frame the judiciary's relationship with the other branches of government, different issues come across my desk every day (civil justice, criminal justice, family law, economics and finance, lawsuits, personnel and administration, court procedure, constitutional law), and each requires the combined approach of a lawyer, tactician and public relations guru. On days I'm at my state capitol, I might discuss hard issues with lawmakers and staff; on other days, I might discuss hard issues with judges, nonprofit advocates, staff and members of the public. More than anything else, the mix of people and issues is what's exciting."

"And when a bill I wrote becomes law... there's nothing better. Rather than affect the administration of justice one client or one case at a time, I'm working to make the entire justice system work better. Those systemic issues sometimes get lost in the shuffle, and often people with cases in the courts don't have time or don't care to think about those broader issues. That's why they're so important, especially because a single change can affect millions."

Next Steps

"Thinking ahead," David says, "many people who have the kind of job I enjoy get it in their 40s or 50s and keep it for the rest of their careers. While I'd consider staying where I am, I'd like to experience the other branches of government and their unique cultures, so someday a shift to the executive branch could be exciting."

Did I Ever Think I'd End Up Here?

"As a new graduate, I could envision myself advocating for policy change, but not for courts or the justice system. At that time, the issues were based on individual causes--clean air, community preservation--and not the system that helped decide those causes. Only with experience did I come to understand first-hand that if the system is inefficient, unfair or even broken, there's no way that individual causes can get their fair shake."

Advice for Others

"The best advice I've heard is actually about advice itself: never let people tell you that something is the right fit or a bad choice. People give advice through the lenses of their own experience, and while others' experience often can be helpful, it can never replace or even fully appreciate the experience that we gain ourselves. The best career approach is the one I was fortunate enough to take: find out what you love, what you feel most passionate about, by experiencing different things for yourself and then being very self-aware--and brutally honest with yourself without influence from anyone else's expectations or goals--about why experiences ignite or don't ignite your passion. Then once you find out what you love, go for it: settling for anything less is a ticket to mediocrity and burnout. For me, the result has been coming to work psyched every day."

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