Working in California Government: An interview with Monica Willian, NDLS 2013

Last year, I spoke with Monica Willian, Deputy City Attorney, San Diego City Attorney, NDLS 2013 law graduate, and mentor in the CDO’s alumni mentorship program. We talked about her career working in government, how she landed her job, the City Attorney’s summer program for law student interns, and advice she has for law students.

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

MW: Just always growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer and was interested in pursuing government work. My dad worked for the state of California and my mom was a teacher and seeing them work for the government made me interested in that path.

KMB: Having attended college in California, what made you go to ND?

MW: Having applied to similarly ranked law schools, Notre Dame reached out to me and encouraged me to apply. I planned a spring break tour of law schools and when I went to Notre Dame for my tour, I just noticed that the students were chatting with each other and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. I didn’t find that same atmosphere at other law schools I visited. I was also attracted to ND because of the small class size and the great alumni network. I initially thought I wanted to go to DC after graduation but I also knew I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to end up so I thought ND would be a good opportunity to explore different geographic areas because of the great ND alumni network.

KMB: What did you do your 1L summer?

MW: I worked for the California Attorney General’s office in their Civil Division. It was a great internship program that was structured with different field trips where we checked out different government agencies. We went to Lake Tahoe and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, getting a look at how they coordinate between California and Nevada on how to keep Lake Tahoe blue. As an intern, I predominately worked on consumer complaints so an example of a case I worked on was a group that was scamming African American churches throughout southern California. It was interesting work and I felt like I was doing something that was helpful for people.

KMB: And how about your 2L summer?

MW: I went and worked at a firm that did election and campaign finance law in California. The father of one of my friends from college was a partner at the firm. In college, I had interned in DC for a member of congress who was represented by this firm so that is how I initially came to be aware of them. Working for the firm was an interesting way to work in government but in to be in a law firm setting. It was slower paced than the AG’s office. Working there gave me the opportunity to do some research on Supreme Court decisions and how they were being applied.

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

MW: One of the things I realized in picking summer jobs is that among my classmates, there was a big push to just get a job for the summer and so there wasn’t a lot of talk of picking a job that would lead to something.

So when it came to apply for jobs my 3L year, I started by applying to the offices I had worked at before. The California AG’s office has an honors program that is hard to get into. I applied to that. The firm I worked for 2L summer was a small firm with a lot of the partners getting ready to retire and slowing down business so they weren’t looking to hire a brand new associate.

So from there, I applied to clerk for a bunch of judges, threw my hat in the ring for any job openings I saw, and ended up doing the Bridge to Practice program through Notre Dame, working in the Court of Appeals in Santa Ana for a year. That’s not a job that leads to a long-term position so while there, I applied to a lot of positions. I ended up working as a District Attorney in Los Angeles for three months. They accept applications in September and it’s a 4-6 month process where they whittle down the class size so you have to volunteer for free to get hired there. I decided I wasn’t passionate about special victims work so I moved to San Diego, where my sister and her husband live. I started volunteering at the City attorney’s office, where I worked for 2 weeks before being offered a job at small firm doing general business litigation.

I got that small firm job because one of the partners there was an ND alumnus. I had joined the ND alumni club in San Diego. We started the ND lawyer’s group here. WOrked at the firm for about a year and then offered position at the City Attorney’s.

KMB: How did you ultimately land at the City Attorney’s office?

MW: I applied and interviewed for every position that they posted. In San Diego, our city attorney’s office has both a civil and a criminal division, which is pretty uncommon among city attorney’s offices. Most don’t have a criminal division. We predominately hire new attorneys into our criminal division but I wanted to work in civil so I just kept applying and staying in contact with attorneys I knew at the City. I am now in the Civil Advisory section in government affairs work.

KMB: How long have you been working for the City Attorney?

MW: 2 1/2 years.

KMB: What kind of work do you do at the City Attorney? 

MW: I advise the city council, the city clerk’s office, and the treasurer’s office. I deal with a lot of ethics issues, conflict of interest codes, and campaign finance issues. The contracts I work on are through the treasure’s office so for instance, a recent project was they were working on new software so when they do debt collection, everything is centralized in one payment system. I also update contracts the already have to make sure they have up to date security language. I do a lot of public records act requests. Since January, we’ve gotten 10,000 public records requests from citizens. I make sure those are responded to.

KMB: What is your day to day life like?

MW: I review contracts, work on ordinances or memos, with public act requests, we have ten days to respond so I work with departments to help them draft responses to those. I experienced billable hours for a short period of time and thought it wasn’t fun. Here, I work 8-5, M-F. Sometimes we have special city council meetings that run late but there is no expectation to work on weekends or work after hours.

Even talking to my friends working in big law, you obviously don’t make as much if you’re working in government but in a smaller market like San Diego, big law lawyers are not getting the same salaries as big law lawyers working in big cities. So I figured out with the hourly rate you’re getting, there’s not as big a difference.

KMB: Does the City Attorney have a Summer program?

MW: Yes. Three years ago, attorneys in our office revamped our program and structured it so we were taking interns on different field trips to different agencies in San Diego to learn about the work of the different agencies. We have a class of ten interns. It is a centralized program attorneys can put assignments in so interns can see a list of assignments and choose what assignment they want to do. They can tailor their intern experience so that if someone is really interested in land use or contracts work, they can pick those assignments. This centralized system also helps interns interact more with a wider variety of attorneys in our office.

We have received really good feedback from interns on this program. I would love to have students from Notre Dame as interns.

KMB: Do you take both 1Ls and 2Ls in your summer program?

MW: Yes. Our office does OCIs at San Diego schools and takes applications all year. Students can apply now (August) and we receive the majority of applications in winter time. We will interview students by phone or in person if they are in San Diego for winter break.

KMB: What advice do you have for students on preparing application materials?

MW: Write a good cover letter. That’s what people tend to mess up the most. With interviews, it helps if you do some research on what our office does before you interview. A lot of people that interview don’t really know what the City Attorney’s office is or what we do.

I will note that the Civil and Criminal Divisions each have separate applications. The Criminal unit is most likely to hire fresh out of law school.

KMB: How does your entry-level hiring work?

MW: 3Ls need to volunteer (or work through the Bridge to Practice program) for a couple of months before the Criminal Division starts hiring but they hire big classes right around when bar results come out so if you volunteer and worked here from August-November, you can definitely get hired. Volunteers get a lot of trial experience.

KMB: What advice do you have for law students interested in building their legal career in San Diego?

MW: We have a very strong Notre Dame lawyer network in San Diego. Even if a student is interested in working at a firm, there are a lot of people to connect with here. San Diego as a market has a lot of small firms and solo practitioners and they hire. ND alumni in San Diego frequently go out of their way to help students and look at resumes.

KMB: Do you have any other advice for law students?

MW: When you’re taking the bar exam, even if you don’t have a job, just focus on the bar exam and don’t try to job hunt at the same time. For networking, stay in touch and send thank you notes. That’s how I found my jobs, through networking and staying in touch. Make an excuse to get in touch throughout the school year. It is enough to email an alumni contact and say you are planning classes for next year, do you have recommendations? You can email and say you are studying for the bar exam, do you have any tips. Attorneys love talking and giving advice. If you don’t hear from someone and it has been a couple of weeks, you can send a follow-up email.

If you’re interested in interning at the San Diego City Attorney, shoot Monica an email. (Email me and I will give you her email).



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