Opportunity Knocks: The Attorney General Civil Litigation Program

The view from the twentieth floor of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office building is incredible. From the executive conference room you can see clear to the Heights; BC’s Gasson bell tower rises above the surrounding suburbs. From my desk, I could peek out onto Boston Harbor or the Charles River, depending on which way I turned. One day I caught glimpses of the tall ships taking their annual jaunt through the harbor. Viewed through a metaphorical lens the height of the AG’s office, which towers above the statehouse next door, hints at the independence, responsibility, and power bestowed on the office. In Massachusetts, the AG (who is elected, not appointed, and is currently Maura Healey) both protects and enforces the state’s laws, and stands up for its citizens when the federal government’s actions threaten them. Every year, a select few third-year BC Law students get to peek into and experience the extensive and demanding work behind fulfilling those duties. Last year, I had the fortune of being one of those students.

Started By Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti ‘52 in 1975, the Attorney General Civil Litigation Program places students in the office’s Government Bureau, in either the Administrative Law Division (AdLaw) or the Trial Division. Over the course of twenty-four hours a week during the entire school year, we were thrown into substantive work on the legal quagmires in which Massachusetts is a party and became essential members of litigation teams. That the program is a yearlong commitment is one of its many strengths. At short, summer internships, I found that I finally had a decent grasp on what I was doing as the internship was ending. At the AG’s office, on the other hand, my best and most substantive work came during the second semester, once I had a command of the basics and the attorneys I worked with trusted my work product. The program includes a weekly seminar at the AG’s office, where we learned about the AG’s place in our federalist system, all aspects of trial and appellate civil litigation, and heard from the program’s past participants who work in every legal field imaginable: government service, in-house counsel, big firm, etc. The breadth of the career paths that graduates of the program pursue suggests that the program can be impactful to law students considering any legal field. Importantly, we were encouraged to “stand up” as a lawyer, for example by making an argument in court or taking a deposition. One of my colleagues even got to argue a case in front of a three-judge panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. After spending most of 1L and 2L in a classroom, the program was a necessary jolt that staved off the doldrums which are often associated with 3L.

I was placed in AdLaw, and primarily worked on two areas of litigation. The first involved defending Massachusetts laws against constitutional challenges. There are all kinds of constitutional barriers to the state’s ability to pass laws. For example, Massachusetts cannot completely ban its residents from possessing stun guns (Second Amendment) or, somewhat more arcanely, pass a law that favors in-state winemakers over their out-of-state competitors (Commerce Clause). I worked closely with a team defending a state law (details of which cannot be discussed because the litigation is ongoing), and was tasked with researching and writing memos about what seemed to me to be slight, but I came to realize were consequential, areas of civil litigation rules and constitutional doctrines. I also got to comb through (in books!) centuries of legal opinions past attorney generals had written to find those that justified a certain action taken by the current attorney general. Lawyers, of course, research and write a lot, and I embraced the opportunity to practice those skills in a high-stakes environment. But even better was the detailed feedback I received on every assignment I submitted, and the office’s open-door culture. It showed how committed the assistant attorney generals were to my professional development. I was also invited into strategy meetings, which gave me the opportunity to watch the state’s lawyers build a case from the ground up.

The second area of litigation I worked on involved appeals from the decisions of administrative agencies. The subject matter of these appeals runs the gamut from schools’ Individualized Education Plan decisions, the Department of Children and Families finding that a parent was abusive, to all kinds of licensure issues (liquor, driver’s, gun, etc.). I argued a case in Brockton District Court where a man, who represented himself, appealed the suspension of his motorcycle license after he was twice found weaving between cars on the highway. As you might imagine based on that brief factual description, it was not a tough case to win. What was a bit more difficult, as the assistant attorney general who supervised me on the case emphasized (more on her below), was presenting an argument to the judge while remaining conscious of the fact that the opposing party was self-represented and not as knowledgeable about the law as an attorney or law student. Going overboard during the argument would make me, and thus the state, look like a jerk and lose credibility with the judge. This type of tact is difficult (maybe impossible) to teach in a classroom, but the program provides the ideal environment to start developing these essential soft lawyering skills.

I asked Alex Booker ’19, who was my colleague in the program and worked in the Trial Division, about his experience. Alex is a June Kalijarvi Law Fellow and works on employment and civil rights matters at Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch in Washington D.C.

The Trial Division defends Massachusetts agencies in civil rights, employment, contract, and tort cases. As a student in the program, I was able to request and get placed on cases in my areas of interest—civil rights and employment. This gave me significant hands-on practical experience while working closely with committed mentors, and substantial exposure to a career as a government litigator. Over the year, I worked on ten different cases, wrote several briefs and motions (to dismiss and for summary judgment), and represented Massachusetts in an oral argument in state court. It was a truly unique and memorable opportunity as a 3L to stand in court and announce my name “on behalf of the Commonwealth.” In that case, I argued in favor of a ten-count motion to dismiss for over an hour. Although my supervisor sat next to me, she allowed me to take the lead in the argument and chimed in only occasionally if there were obscure questions of law with which I was unfamiliar. Driving home afterwards I knew I had found my calling and couldn’t wait for my next opportunity to argue a case.

My experiences in the program were crucial in helping me secure a great job after graduation. Not only did I make close and genuine connections with my talented and experienced mentors, I learned and sharpened skills that impressed prospective employers. During job interviews, I had a deep pool of material to draw upon and display my professional growth and potential as a lawyer. It clearly helped. I’m now doing employment and civil rights litigation, which is exactly the work I wanted to do when I entered BC Law. I’ve had multiple assignments in my first year where I’ve been able to point back to the program and say I’ve done that before, which benefits my clients and my firm, and gives me more confidence in my work and abilities as a young lawyer.

Graduates of the AG Program often continue on to illustrious careers. Recent graduates include a member of the U.S. Department of Justice Honors Program, who clerked for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and a federal district court judge and an attorney at Sidley Austin in Washington D.C. who clerked for a federal judge on the Tenth Circuit. Such graduates are likely spurred by the example set by the two faculty-attorneys who lead the program, Professors Tom Barnico and Jim Sweeney (both BC Law grads). Professor Barnico served the Commonwealth through his work in AdLaw for many, many years; he’s now an adjunct faculty member at BC. He holds an incredible cache of institutional knowledge about the AG’s office and a command of state and federal cases that Westlaw should envy. Professor Sweeney has likewise served Massachusetts as an assistant attorney general for decades, currently as State Trial Counsel. He has a wealth of war stories about fighting (and winning) for the state in the trial trenches. Both have advocated on behalf of Massachusetts at the highest level possible and are dedicated to furthering the education and careers of the program’s students. The opportunity to learn from them is not one BC Law students should pass on.

I will end with the aspect of the program I valued most: the attorneys with whom I worked and from whom I learned. The attorney who supervised my on the driver’s license appeal, for example, clerked for Justice Ginsburg and regularly represents Massachusetts in federal appeals. Waiting for court to start in Brockton, I asked her what she thought of the contrast between her roles, standing before the First Circuit one day and Brockton district court the next. She replied by talking about the importance of the state’s citizens ability to contest government actions that they believed were wrong, with or without an attorney helping them, and said that she valued her work on administrative appeals as much as her work on federal constitutional litigation. That type of humility and dedication to public service epitomizes the values of the lawyers I worked with at the AG’s office. All aspiring attorneys have much to learn from the examples set by the attorneys who have earned the privilege of exercising the power and responsibility that comes with the twentieth floor.

Alex Bou-Rhodes graduated in 2019 with a dual degree in social work and law. He is currently a law clerk at the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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