Amy Zubrensky

Current Job: Assistant United States Attorney, United States’ Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia
YLS year: J.D. 1997


Can you tell me a little about your career path?

I graduated from YLS in 1997. After law school I clerked for the Hon. Kim Wardlaw, who was on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles. I was very fortunate that at the end of that year, she was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and invited me to clerk for another year. After that clerkship, I joined a firm in D.C., where I stayed for a little more than a year. Then I went to the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Voting Section, for four years. I applied to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and I have been here ever since.

What’s your day-to-day work like?

I work in the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section within the U.S. Attorney’s Office, prosecuting sexual assault cases involving adult and child victims. Every day is completely different. I am in court several times a week for everything from arraignments and preliminary hearings in new cases, to motions hearings, status updates, guilty pleas, and sentencings. A lot of my time is spent interviewing witnesses. Farther along in a case, I am preparing witnesses for trial. Many days, I meet with detectives to discuss ongoing investigations, or we will go to a crime scene or the Evidence Control Division to look at physical evidence. Once I got to watch crime scene technicians examine evidence with an ultraviolet light source looking for biological material – it felt very “CSI”. Some days I talk with expert witnesses including emergency room physicians, sexual assault nurses, scientists and DNA analysts. In the early years in the office, I was in court almost all day, every day, handling dozens of status hearings and bench trials in misdemeanor cases. Now I try about two cases a year, so those are very long days, presenting witnesses and evidence all day to the jury, and then in the evening after court, researching legal issues and getting everything ready for the next day.

Law enforcement is 24-7, so it’s not unusual to get calls at odd hours. There is some weekend work, which is sometimes just being on call and other times working at the courthouse to process new arrests. I also go to the Children’s Advocacy Center, where children who are victims of or witnesses to crimes are forensically interviewed by specially trained interviewers. We work as a multi-disciplinary team to try to minimize trauma to children from the investigative and prosecution process itself.

Time alone in my office — which is less frequent — is spent drafting motions and pleadings in pending cases, discovery letters, plea agreements, sentencing memos, post-trial motions, and other documents. It is very rare to have a whole day in my office without meeting with witnesses or detectives or going to court – often all three. I tend to do the more complicated writing projects at night because it’s the only quiet time I can find.

How many hours a week/day do you work?

About 8-12 hours a day when I’m not in trial. During trial, it’s closer to 16 hours a day plus weekends. Earlier in my career, I was in trial much more often, but the cases were shorter and less complicated, so didn’t require the same kind of round-the-clock work. In the District of Columbia, an AUSA is both a local and federal prosecutor, so our dockets are very full.


What was the most valuable about your YLS experience? What is the most important lesson you took away from you time at YLS?

The most valuable aspect of my YLS experience was meeting all my fellow students. Everyone is so interesting and driven in different ways. Your classmates become your friends and colleagues and peers for the rest of your life.

The most important lesson I learned was to build connections. I did my undergrad at UCLA, which is a huge school where I didn’t bond as tightly as I did with my classmates in law school. After college, everyone went off and did different things. With law school, your classmates generally end up working in the same field as you, which allows you to keep in closer touch.

What skills do you rely on now but that law school did not emphasize enough?

The nuts and bolts of trial work. Evidence. YLS is more about the big picture, legal theory and things like that. You don’t learn how to investigate an allegation or put together a jury trial. Which is fine, because most people aren’t going to be trial lawyers. Real world communication skills are definitely something I rely on heavily now that didn’t get a lot of emphasis in law school. Law can be an elite world, and this is especially true of law school. Outside of clinics, there isn’t much opportunity to be exposed to people who might have experiences very different from your own. In my current job, I interact with people from every walk of life every day. I interview prostitutes, drug addicts, drug dealers, people who have committed violent crimes, children, graduate students, scientists, and physicians. There’s a lot that goes into how you talk to people.


What do you feel are the most rewarding aspects of being a prosecutor? What are the biggest challenges?

The most rewarding aspect is connecting with people who have suffered incredible violations and working for justice on their behalf. In sex crimes, you have to gain the trust of someone who is already traumatized from the offense, who has just met you, and who is often afraid they will be re-victimized by the investigation and trial. To gain that person’s trust, and navigate them through the criminal justice system, can be very gratifying. In cases of sexual abuse of children, you are working on behalf of someone who has no voice in the system.

I think the biggest challenge of this job is that it is very stressful. It is a high volume, fast-paced job, and we manage a heavy caseload. Many of my cases have to be tried within 100 days of arrest, so it leads to a very compressed timetable for all the work of a thorough investigation, decision-making, and trial preparation. It is hard to juggle multiple cases and investigations, numerous witnesses, and all of the court obligations and deadlines.

Another challenge is the emotional aspect. Sex crimes can be intense. Some crimes are horrific and stay with me for a long time. There are also some hard conversations with victims when the decision is made not to prosecute a particular allegation.

How have you balanced work/life? How do you deal with all your obligations? Has this changed over time?

I have two young kids, so “balance” isn’t even a word I relate to right now. I’m always juggling. There is always more that I could be doing on my cases and more I want to be doing with my family. It is also challenging to switch gears from intense violent crimes during the day to find positive energy at night for my kids. When I am in trial, it is particularly difficult because the hours are so long. One thing I’ve learned to do is to divide up my work between things I can do at home after the kids go to bed and things that absolutely have to be done in the office. Before I had kids, all I considered in the work-life balance equation was an employer’s maternity leave policy. Now I see that maternity leave was barely the tip of the iceberg, and that so many working women are doing the same constant juggling act.  Even if you have a supportive partner, which I do, many more family obligations still fall on women’s shoulders.


Do you see any differences in the challenges that men and women face in the law profession?

I think there are differences. As much as we have advanced in terms of women in senior leadership positions, there can still be the perception that women who have children aren’t as committed to their work. A lot of people ask me whether I work part-time. No one would even think to ask a male prosecutor if he worked part-time just because he had kids.

What advice was helpful to you as a law student, or what advice did you wish you had received?

Enjoy the law school experience as much as possible. Take the classes you want to take, do the clinics you want to do. Immerse yourself in the subjects that interest you. Don’t worry about being a “gunner” or going to every office hour. Get invested in New Haven and the law school community. In law school, you have the luxury to think about legal theory with no pressure. At the end of the day, your YLS diploma will open so many doors. YLS students can be in so much of a bubble that they don’t even realize how valuable the credential itself is. You don’t need ten Honors on your transcript. It won’t matter to most employers, with the exception of a handful of elite clerkships, and that is even more true the farther out you get from law school.

Do you have advice more specifically for YLS students who aspire to be AUSAs?

It’s hard to say because I wasn’t someone who always knew I wanted to be a criminal prosecutor. I had a number of friends who worked in U.S. Attorney’s offices and really seemed to enjoy it. Being an AUSA turned out to be great fit for me. If you already know it’s something you’re interested in, then it makes sense to do internships in the summer. Explore different offices, and consider both USAO and DA internships. Contact prosecutors in those offices who are YLS alums, and more than likely, they will be happy to talk to you.

Speaking more generally about getting into public sector work after graduation, you do have to work a little harder to find the jobs. FIP makes the process of entering the private sector extremely organized and easy, but public sector and non-profit opportunities aren’t like that. I got stuck in a year and half-long hiring freeze after I applied to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. To push past these challenges, you need to be proactive. Send resumes to lots of places, check for job listings frequently, call your friends and contacts in fields you are interested in. You should feel free to reach out to YLS alums who are pursuing a career path that interests you. We alums put our names and contact information in the YLS career databases because we want to be helpful and we like volunteering our time to chat with law students about their career aspirations.
In this profession, women became the main source of teachers.

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