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In Fireside Chat, AG Schwalb Offers Advice to Early Career Attorneys

February 22, 2024

By Jeremy Conrad

Kirkland & Ellis associate Eric Tarosky, D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb, and D.C. Bar President Charles R. Lowery Jr.
From left to right: Kirkland & Ellis associate Eric Tarosky, D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb, and D.C. Bar President Charles R. Lowery Jr.

On February 20 approximately 70 attorneys joined D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb in a fireside chat about his career, his thoughts on the legal profession, and his reflections on serving as chief prosecutor of a jurisdiction that has unique assets and challenges.

Hosted by the D.C. Bar Early Career Lawyers Community and moderated by Kirkland & Ellis LLP associate Eric Tarosky, the conversation with Schwalb started with a look back on his formative years as an attorney.

Schwalb said he knew he wanted to be a litigator and took every opportunity in law school and during his early years of practice to learn by doing. After clerking for Judge John R. Hargrove Sr. of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Schwalb served in the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice from 1994 to 1998 before going into private practice.

“That’s why I joined the Justice Department. It was a great first step,” he said. “It’s not for everybody, and, certainly, there are great lessons you can learn from senior lawyers at firms [who] will mentor you along the way, but I think learning by doing was formative to how I emerged as a lawyer.”

Schwalb said he also benefited from joining a number of bar associations and communities early in his career. “The more you can engage with other members of the bar and build relationships, the better,” he said. “It helps with early career lawyers to start finding mentors. We all need mentors. We all owe it to one another to be mentors.”

Schwalb also recommended pursuing pro bono opportunities. “You can never do enough pro bono work,” he said. “The need is overwhelming. We will never run out of pro bono work in our city, and from a professional development standpoint, it is the perfect way to get experience in matters.”

During his nearly 18 years at Venable LLP, Schwalb was involved in several pro bono matters, including the defense of Freddie Woods, a man sentenced to death in Alabama for a murder committed in the course of a robbery that occurred when he was 19 years old. Schwalb and his colleagues were successful in getting Woods’s death penalty overturned.

“One of the things that struck me was, we were basically looking at Alabama in 1996/1997, where a Black teenager [is] accused of killing a white storeowner … he was basically done as soon as he was arrested that day,” Schwalb said.

“And all of the inequities and all of the unfairness associated with the criminal justice system many years ago, so much of that is repeating itself here in Washington, D.C., today. It’s in the ways that our criminal justice system works. It’s something I try to keep in mind — all of the big and little ways the system works or doesn’t work,” he added.

Schwalb said that he views the attorney general’s office as a law firm committed to service to the residents of the District. “I think it should be the best law firm in the country, when you think about the talent in the city, the issues we get to deal with, the complexity that we wrestle with,” he said.

This perception is foundational to building institutional excellence, one of the four core pillars guiding Schwalb’s work. Schwalb said that the pillars, which also include prioritizing public safety, promoting equity, and standing up for democratic values, were the result of his interactions with members of the community. He said that instilling hopefulness among youth is fundamental to public safety.

“If we raise healthy, hopeful children, that’s a public safety strategy because hopeful kids are safer kids — for themselves, for everyone around them,” he said. “If you are hopeless, you do desperate things, and there are too many children around our city that are hopeless [and think] that the system has repeatedly failed.”

Another focus for Schwalb is equity. “We have all the resources that any city, any community, could want,” he said. “What we don’t do is share those resources as well as we should, so we have these great disparities amongst all these resources in the city that create more and more challenges for us.”

Wealth disparities contribute to problems with property crimes, Schwalb said. “If we’re going to do something about public safety in this city, we need to have a three-pronged approach,” he said. “Police are part of that, and prosecution is part of that, and clearly both have an important role. But if you don’t focus on the prevention part, too, we’re not going to get to the place where we really want to be.”

Schwalb said his office is funding community-based initiatives intended to address conditions that lead to crime and recidivism.

During the Q&A portion of the event, Schwalb addressed questions relating to the District’s lack of franchise and its impact on public safety and crime, the treatment of prisoners, and the ongoing difficulty filling vacant court positions.

“We get used as a political football,” Schwalb said. “If you were trying to design a system to handicap D.C. the best you [could], you would do all of these things. It’s not by accident. This is part of the racial history of our city. It’s part of the political history of our city.”

Schwalb said he uses every opportunity he can find to argue for statehood. “It’s so important to have the conversation. Conflict isn’t something I run away from. I’m drawn to it like a moth to a light. Smart, civil engagement and disagreement … there’s nothing wrong with that,” Schwalb said. “In fact, we need more of that. It’s a disappearing art to disagree without being disagreeable.”

Launched in June 2023, the Early Career Lawyers Community is the Bar’s newest Community with approximately 800 members. Open to attorneys with 10 or fewer years of practice experience, the Early Career Lawyers Community has quickly become an important point of contact for those interested in helping to guide and shape the individuals who will forge the future of the profession.

The Community’s next event, taking place on March 7, will examine pro bono opportunities available at D.C. Superior Court.

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