An AUSA 2 Years After Law School (with a low 1L GPA!): A Conversation with Andy Hatfield, ‘NDLS 14

When we speak of the great Notre Dame alumni network, Andy Hatfield is the kind of alumnus we are talking about. Andy regularly emails the CDO asking how he can help students and offering to talk with students who are not thrilled with their 1L GPAs because he  certainly was not thrilled with his. Andy has done something quite remarkable and rare. He has landed many people’s dream job, an Assistant United State’s Attorney job, only two years after graduating law school and he did it with a very low 1L GPA.

I had a great conversation with Andy about his career path, law school career, and how he got where he is today.

KM: How did you end up in law school?

AH: I am from Albuquerque originally, went to the University of New Mexico for undergrad, graduated in 2011, and then enrolled at ND Law in the fall of 2011. I went straight through from undergrad to law school. I would take time off if I could do it again. It was lean times within the legal profession when I went to law school.

KM: What kind of work experiences did you pursue in law school?

AH: First of all, my grades were bad. My first semester, I was probably in the bottom 10%. But I turned things around and graduated in the top 10%

During my 1L summer, I split between a state supreme court justice and a federal district court judge. Both chambers were cranky that I was splitting but looking back on it, I couldn’t have done anything better. The state side gave me street cred with New Mexico employers. Through that internship, I showed that I had been in the highest court in the state and that state service was important to me while I could also say that because I was in the federal court, I was familiar with the federal process and had worked with sentencing guidelines.

I got lucky. I fell backwards into working with two of the best possible judges. Both were important people to know and talk about and were big in the state of New Mexico.

If I could do it over again, I would do exactly what I did for my 1L summer.

KM: How about your 2L summer?

AH: Through 2L OCI and outside of the OCI process, I applied to 400 jobs before I found mine. I spammed everything. I applied to every single person that would sit down with me and not surprisingly, being from Albuquerque, I struck out with random Milwaukee and Miami firms.

I got no traction with the OCI process but then I spammed all of the firms in Albuquerque with more than 10 people. I went to martindale, created a list of firms, and applied to all of them. I got some traction there but most of the firms I contacted did not start hiring until October. You can contrast that with big firm timing, which is more in August or September.

One of the firms I interviewed with via teleconference was the biggest and oldest firm in New Mexico. I had an offer in hand and these other firms weren’t going to decide for a month and that offer was expiring so I took the offer with that firm before doing my homework.

It turns out that their NALP page saying they take 2-4 summers every year and they intend to make offers to all of them was out of date. They hadn’t hired any summers for postgraduate lawyer positions in 5 years or so.

I didn’t do a good job at that firm because I was consumed with the existential crisis of getting an offer from there. There were 2 2Ls and 1 1L and they said they might hire one of us if we did well. I didn’t do a good job and was set up for failure. I was just fearful that if I didn’t get the offer, I was doomed to be unemployed.

KM: Take me through your 3L job search.

AH: In October of 3L year, I got no offered and so did my entire summer class. I was a 3L convinced I would die unemployed. At that point, I spammed every single job I heard of and got a couple of interviews but nothing was working.

In February of my 3L year, I looked at the New Mexico state bar bulletin and the District Attorney’s offices are always advertising there but 9/10 say successful applicants need bar passage in hand before applying so I didn’t apply for the longest time.

One of the postings was ambiguous and said they wanted an entry-level DA. I applied and then thought “what did I have to lose” so I applied to 10-12 different DA postings in New Mexico. Within one week, I had three different interviews set up and a 4th called while I was interviewing.

KM: What is the job market in New Mexico like?

AH: The dynamic in NM is that the University of New Mexico draws people in from all over the state and then they never go back to where they’re from. So geographically distant corners of the state are drastically understaffed all of the time.

KM: How did your DA interviews go? How did you decide which District Attorney offer to accept?

AH: When I was home for spring break, I interviewed with 4 DA offices that week. I drove all over the state interviewing.

I ended up accepting with the 5th judicial district in Roswell, 200 miles from Albuquerque, because I was intoxicated by trials and wanted to do as many of them as possible. (Roswell is a town of 30,000 people but does more jury trials than Albuquerque, which has 600,000 people.)

While in law school, I was a public defender intern with St. Joseph County and took the felony trial class with Professor Wruble and I couldn’t get enough of it.

As it happens, New Mexico’s 5th judicial district is in the southeast corner of the state and a 3 hour drive from any major town. It has one starbucks and a target. It was remarkably violent.

From June 2014-October 15, in the first year of being sworn in  as an attorney, I did 50 trials and 30 jury trials. I was in a jury trial every single week and sometimes, I would do 2 jury trials in a day.

KM: What was the next step after your first job in Roswell? How did you tee yourself up to be in line for an AUSA job?

AH: The pay there was low and it was a little town but the experience was ideal. In October 2015, I leveraged that trial experience to get a promotion to Deputy District Attorney and a raise. I moved to Deming, NM. Deming is 15000 people and has no starbucks and no target. It is not an easy place to live in but I got a promotion early and most importantly, I got staffed on the high impact drug trafficking activity cases.

The feds throw money at state entities and if the agents bring under a certain threshold of drugs in, the case goes to the DA. Once the drugs are over a certain threshold, the case goes to the AUSA. I thought that frequent interaction with federal agents and AUSAs would lead to this being the ideal step to get an AUSA job.

As a DA in the small town, I was already working with the FBI and border patrol and so a job as an AUSA would be a step up but similar in kind to what I was already doing.

KM: How did you end up landing the AUSA gig?

AH: I had been applying to AUSA offices all over country. In June 2016, I got interviews with the Tuscon and Lubbock AUSA offices. With Lubbock, the dynamic was that the office was under-funded and because AUSAs get paid based on how many years it has been since they have passed the bar, they could only afford to pay someone with 3 or fewer years of experience.

Most AUSAs have 5-15 years of experience.

By the time I interviewed, I had done 70 trials and 15-16 felony jury trials. For being a year and a half after passing the bar into my career, that level of trial experience is extremely uncommon.

Usually the concern from AUSAs in hiring DAs with great trial experience is that state DAs can’t or won’t write. The ND Law credential erased some fears about me being a small town hack.

I started as an AUSA in Lubbock in November.

KM: What did you come into law school wanting to do with your career?

AH: I was stone cold convinced that I wanted to be a JAG officer when I got to law school but they turned me down 9 times. I graduated magna cum laude from college, had never done drugs, and was in pretty good shape but something went on with their decision matrix where I didn’t fit the bill. I am glad it didn’t work out because I am so happy now.

KM: What advice do you have for students who are really interested in private practice or big law but are not getting the traction they had hoped for?

AH: I am so glad I am not in private practice. Spending life in 6 minutes blocks is no way to live your life. I have never been less happy then when I was billing. It just was not a fit for me.

I feel like 20% of people when they enter law school actually want to do private practice and in the frenzy of OCI, 80% are applying. A lot of attorneys are clinically depressed and there are lots of substance problems. I wonder how much of that is people forget why they went to law school.

At the time, my negative experience with OCI and failure to get a private firm job was a crushing disappointment but I am glad it didn’t work out for me. My arc is as well as I could have played it.

KM: What advice do you have for students who are applying and not getting anything out of it?

AH: It was the chief of the recession when I was in law school but at that time, in Roswell, there were tons of open positions. I reached out to my unemployed friends to tell them that Roswell was eagerly hiring for open positions and no one has to be unemployed. They turned me down because they refused to leave Chicago.

I think that was a mistake to be so focused on one geographic area. It’s foolish to say you have to be in Chicago. You can get back. It’s not a big deal.

I have plenty of experience with applying and getting nothing. I applied all over, including in Kalamazoo and  Cass County. No one was biting.

New Mexico is under-lawyered. Not going to the University of Mexico, though, is a deal breaker for most Albuquerque employers.

It wasn’t until I started applying to small towns that I started getting A LOT of interviews.

KM: Where do you plan to go from here?

AH: At the end of the day, I am so thrilled to get to the USAO that I’m going to take it 1 step at a time. Lubbock may be smaller than Chicago, but it’s Manhattan compared to Deming. Once you get in at any United State’s Attorney office, you can transfer around.

My long-term goal is to retire at the AUSA. It is one of the few places that checks all of the boxes. I would get to do trials, the work matters, and there is a level of community involvement. Once you have done the job of vindicating rights of victims in court, it makes you feel like a superhero. That is something I never want to give up. I will do it as long as I can. The AUSA is a more sustainable place to be. The pace is crazy in Roswell. I couldn’t live that way forever. Any one would burn out.

If I had to leave, I would go to an Attorney General’s office or a federal plaintiff’s civil rights firm on the private side.

KM: What is your lifestyle like?

AH: I have almost never worked on a weekend. Deming is a ghost town at 5:01 pm so when I worked there, I was out early.

I have a very comfortable existence. While in New Mexico, my friends from high school and family were all in Albuquerque, 3ish hours a way so I went there most weekends. On week days, I saved money, had a nice guitar, and took online classes, which is intellectually stimulating. I go to Boston now and then. My most recent classes were in accounting, managing yourself and others, and financial policy after the financial meltdown. I started taking more classes to get experience for the AUSA job, where I handle embezzlement cases.

One of the few complaints I have is that I do not do a lot of big picture stuff. As a rural DA, there is not a ton of intellectual stimulation.

KM: Any other advice for students as they search for a fulfilling career?

AH: 1. Ask yourself why you went to law school and take it seriously. Chase those goals, have a clear long-term goal, and work backwards from there.

A lot of my peers don’t like firm life, they do like money, and they still don’t know what they want to do. That is a one way ticket to being unhappy.

If you want to be a Partner at Jones Day, I wish you all of the best but if you want to help the little guy, take it seriously. Take the pay cut, go to the gross, little town, chase the experience.

People follow the herd and they’re unhappy.

2. Talk to people who know how to get where you want to be. If you want to work for the UN, find people working there. Chase that goal and attack it.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to take a high salary now in a job they don’t like rather than a taking low salary and getting experience.

KM: When was your last week-long vacation?

AH: In June, I went to FL with my family. Last year, I met with friends, drove to Tuscon, and then went on to Phoenix to see Tegan and Sara.

I still keep up my life in Albuquerque on weekends and there is no problem taking time off of work as long as there isn’t a trial.

My day to day life is awesome and I am extremely thankful for everything I have. My salary is good. I sleep well.

I get to do cool things. I have seen both Ringo Star and Bob Dylan.

Living in the West is great because there is an element that people in the West let you fly your freak flag a little more.

Andy is very eager to speak to NDLS students. If you want to be put in touch with him, email me and I will send you his email.

 

 

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