Working for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: An Interview with Carissa Mulder, NDLS 2009

Recently, I got the chance to talk with Carissa Mulder, Special Assistant and Counsel to Commissioner Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Carissa graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 2009 and has had an interesting job search and career path that has depended on tenacious networking and positivity.

KMB: What made you want to go to law school?

CM: I always thought I would like to go to law school. Then in college, I was a history major and had second thoughts about being in school even longer. I thought about it and realized I had limited options with a history major; I could work as a high school history teacher or go to graduate school for history but that also requires additional schooling and there are fewer jobs for those with master’s degree in history than lawyers. So I went to law school.

I actually did want to do law; it was just that I was tired of school at the time. I wound up going to Notre Dame, which was a great decision. It turned out I was a good fit for law school because I really liked researching and writing. I was on the moot court team. I was interested in litigation but a lot of people going into law school don’t realize how much of it is sitting and reading and writing. But that was a good fit for me.

KMB: What did you do your 1L summer?

CM: Like everyone, I was interested in constitutional law, but I got lucky.  My 1L year, I did an internship where I wound up working on religious liberty issues in regard to the European Union. And then in the fall, I was hired by Professor Rick Garnett to be his Research Assistant, researching Justice Rehnquist’s Religion Clause jurisprudence. I really enjoyed that. I also completed an independent study with Prof Garnett on a First Amendment issue.

KMB: How about your second summer?

CM: I thought that I would like to do something that had to do with religious liberty law but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that right out of law school. I decided I wanted to be in DC and I didn’t get hired by a firm. I was looking for internships and saw the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had a General Counsel’s office and they took interns so I applied. I asked Professor Garnett  if he had heard of the Conference and it turned out that he knew the General Counsel. The General Counsel asked him about my application and Professor Garnett recommended me. So I worked there my 2L summer.

KMB: What did your job search look like your 3L year?

CM: I went back for 3L year and the bottom fell out of the economy in the fall of 2008. That was a very difficult time for everyone in my class. There were no jobs. People were having their law firm offers yanked.

When I graduated, I didn’t have a job. The law school started offering summer research assistant-ships so while I was studying for the bar, I also worked for Professor Snead on bioethics issues and that was fun and interesting. There were still no jobs. I started volunteering for a religious liberty organization in Phoenix, the Alliance for Defending Freedom, because I had to move back in with my parents.

KMB: How did you end up landing your first job?

CM: In December, I heard from Notre Dame’s then Director of Career Services that they would offer stipends to unemployed graduates, so I got one of those to continue working at the Alliance Defending Freedom. I also started working on a political campaign and working in retail. I had three jobs. I learned a lot from all of that.

It came to the fall and the candidate I was working for lost in the primary, which was a bummer. I was still working at ADF. I got a call from a law school roommate in late September of 2010 and she said that the place she was working, a legislative and regulatory affairs firm in DC, was looking to hire someone and would I be interested. I said of course. She passed my name on. I had a phone interview and came out for an in-person interview and got the job. I had to move to DC within the week from Phoenix, which was intense.

KMB: What did you do in that first job?

CM: In that job, I monitored state regulations and rulemaking at the state level. I had taken administrative law from Professor Kelley sort of on a whim in law school and it turned out to be one of the most useful classes I took. So much of my practice came down to notice and comment periods. Knowing how that worked and understanding the Administrative Procedure Act and Chevron Deference has really been useful in my professional life.

KMB: How long were you in that job?

CM: From October 2010 – June 2012. I was very grateful for the job, but I knew I wanted to do something different. I kept apply for positions and nothing was working out.

KMB: But eventually it worked out!?

CM: Yes. One day I got a call from a Notre Dame alumnus, who had been a few years ahead of me. I had done some freelance cite-checking for him. He had been writing for the Heritage Foundation.

It turned into a relationship that lasted several years and we collaborated professionally. I stayed in contact with him and would cite-check things for him throughout the years. He called me one day and said he was at a meeting where he met a woman who works for a commissioner at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She was leaving the position, and she was looking for someone to take the job. Would I mind if he passed my name along? I told him of course not! Please pass my name along.

She called me the next day to invite me for an interview for the next week. I didn’t know much about civil rights generally. I hadn’t even taken Constitutional Law II. I had taken Freedom of Speech and as mentioned earlier, had done some research for Professor Garnett on religious liberty. In the interview, the commissioner was really interested in religious liberty so the fact that I knew about those issues was a big plus. I got a job with him in June 2012 and have been here ever since.

KMB: That’s a very cool story. Can you tell me how you initially got set up cite-checking for the guy who connected you with the opportunity?

CM: Someone I knew through the Alliance Defending Freedom sent out an announcement saying there was a guy who could use some help with cite-checking and to contact him if interested. My approach has always been that if you can do something to get more experience and put it on your resume, you should do it.

KMB: That is good advice. It sounds like you’re a great networker.

CM: What I tell people is you should try to stay in touch with people. Also, it’s not about getting a job. It’s about having a relationship with this person, building a friendship, and having interest in them as a person. If you have a real interest in the person, that’s what really matters. It’s not about what you can get out of it. When you go to Notre Dame, you have so much in common with people and most people are really cool anyway. Get to know them in a real way beyond the networking happy hour.

KMB: You have had to work hard, be patient, and network to get your career opportunities. What have you learned from the process?

CM: What I’ve learned is a lot of getting a job is about who you know, and not in a bad way. You won’t know about a lot of jobs unless you know someone who knows that there is an opening. For instance, if you’re interested in being on the Hill, you need to know people who work there. For a job like I have where you’re working closely with someone, they want to know you’re reliable, have a personality that works well with their personality, etc. Anything that makes your resume pop out of the stack is good. Most of my friends got their jobs through the normal process but I do think it’s important to reach out to people when you’re looking and ask them to let you know if they hear about anything.

KMB: Can you tell me more about the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights generally?

CM: It was founded in 1957 by President Eisenhower to investigate allegations of voting deprivations in the South. In the 1950s, there was controversy over whether African-Americans in the South were actually being prevented from voting, so the Commission was established to investigate the allegations and “sort the facts from the fancies.” There is an ND connection because Father Hesburgh was one of the founding members of the Commission. It started out with five members and then was reconstituted in the 1980s with 8 members.

I like to describe it as a think tank within the government. We don’t have any enforcement authority. We don’t do what the EEOC does.

We study particular civil rights issues and then advise the President and Congress about them.

KMB: Can you give some specific examples of issues the Commission has studied?

CM: We had a hearing in North Carolina in early February  about voting rights. Basically, it was about the landscape of voting rights post Shelby County. That will be the subject of our annual statutory enforcement report, which will come out in September. We have witnesses testify and we have social scientists on staff who crunch numbers, and of course the reports primarily focus on legal issues.

We just released a report on public education funding. A lot of what we do now has to do with disparate impact, so a lot of our briefings are about a policy or practice that is facially neutral but that has a disparate impact based on race or sex.

Commissioner Kirsanow has been particularly interested in religious liberty and conflicts between religious liberty and non-discrimination laws. I was heavily involved in putting that hearing and report together.

Out of the 8 commissioners, 4 are appointed by the President and 4 by Congress. Their terms are staggered and they don’t expire based on the administration. Commissioner Kirsanow was most recently appointed by former Speaker Boehner.

KMB: What does your day to day work involve?

CM: The special assistants are all schedule Cs, so we’re all political appointees. We are fireable at will. We also have civil service people who work at the Commission. My job is to support Commissioner Kirsanow. It’s similar to being a permanent law clerk. My day is mostly writing and researching legal and policy issues and updating Commissioner Kirsanow on what is happening at the Commission.. I also help review and edit draft reports and help draft letters, congressional testimony, statements, etc.

KMB: Can you tell me more about what happens to the reports that the commission writes? What are they used for?

CM:  These reports go to Congress and the President. They can be used when Congress is considering a bill, or if a member is considering introducing a bill on a particular topic. The reports also examine how other federal agencies enforce civil rights statutes, and if something needs to change in how the agencies are enforcing the statutes.

KMB: Are you happy in your job? 

CM:  Yes. I really enjoy working for Commissioner Kirsanow and I enjoy working with my coworkers. And the work is very interesting. Those three things make all the difference in the world.

There’s also work/life balance. I like having time to see my friends and not be totally burned out. Based on my observations, it’s much more difficult to maintain work-life balance at a law firm.

KMB: Now we’ll move on to the advice part of this conversation! What advice do you have for students who are worried about paying back loans on a government salary?

CM: Government pays less than a big firm, but it probably pays as well as an average mid-sized or small firm and the health benefits are very good. Most people aren’t going to get hired at Jones Day, so if big firms are off the table, government is a good option. Actually, I think government is a good option even if big firms are on the table, depending on what interests you!

KMB: How about advice for students who aren’t thrilled with their GPA?

CM: My GPA was good but not outstanding. In hindsight, I think GPA matters most when you’re doing interviews fall of your 2L year. Firms use it as a pretty hard cutoff; they have to use something to weed through all of the candidates so it makes sense. During firm interviews, my GPA was a 3.39 and most wanted at least a 3.4. It’s just difficult when your GPA will usually be at its lowest point coming into 2L year and that’s when it matters the most. It doesn’t matter as much when you come out.

It’s definitely easier to go the firm path so I see why students feel that pressure.

When I first graduated, I was kind of sorry I didn’t go to a firm but now I am grateful. Going to a firm would have been more straightforward and easier and it’s prestigious. You do get good training, that’s absolutely true. But I am happy with where I am and probably happier than if I had gone to a firm. I am definitely not less happy than I would have been if I had gone to a firm.

KMB: Why do you think it is such a gut punch to get a lower GPA than you expected in law school? I definitely saw that in my law school class too.

CM: On an intellectual level, people understand that not everyone will be at the top of the class. Going in, I was so nervous that the fact I survived at all was great, so at least it wasn’t a gut punch for me. You have a whole group of people that have been at the top of the class their entire lives. I think everyone knows someone will not be at the top of the class but they don’t really think it will be them.


KMB: What advice do you have for law students who are looking for a career outside of the traditional firm path, will need to network, or who are going to be in the thick of the job search during 3L year and perhaps after graduation?
CM: Accepting that you have to be creative in your job search and just keeping on with it is hard.  There’s no rulebook. You don’t realize how stressful and emotionally taxing it is until you are in the middle of it. It’s fumbling in the dark and getting turned down a lot.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the Notre Dame network because I have always found ND people to be really welcoming, even when it’s the networking version of the cold call. When I was looking for a job after graduation, I made a list of alumni who live in DC and just started contacting them. One guy I contacted was a partner at a firm and I asked him for any advice he had. He started asking me all kinds of questions, almost like an interview. I told him I was putting together this list of alumni in DC and that won him over. It didn’t lead to me getting a job but it did make me feel like my efforts were not in vain.

A lot of people I contacted on the Hill –  I think pretty much everyone – called me back and did all they could to help me. People are generally more helpful than you think they will be.

KMB: Does the Commission hire law students?

CM: Yes. We hire one intern over the summer. We have limited bandwidth at the commission so special assistants team up and share an intern. I team up with Allison Somin, who works for Commissioner Harriett.

Note: If you’re interested in working for the Commission, get in touch with me and I will tell you how you can apply. 

KMB: What kind of work do interns do?

CM: Our previous intern did a lot of work on a report that we had. It’s a lot of legal research and some bluebooking. In summer 2018, we will probably be working on the last round of edits of our annual  statutory enforcement report so we’ll ask the intern to go through the report and flag things that aren’t supported, just like when you’re working on a journal.

If you’re a Notre Dame student and you’re interested in getting in touch with Carissa, send me an email and I will give you her contact information. She is happy to speak with Notre Dame students.

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