Sushma Soni

Hometown: Knoxville, Tennessee
Current Job: Civil Division, Appellate Staff Attorney, United States Department of Justice
Education: B.A., Northwestern University; M.P.P., Harvard Kennedy School of Government; J.D., Yale Law School
YLS year: 1990
Clerkship: Hon. John D. Butzner, Jr., United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
Activities at YLS: Research Assistant, Prof. Stephen Carter; Extern, United States Attorney’s Office; Finalist, Thurmond Arnold Moot Court of Appeals


Generally speaking, what work do you do on the Civil Division, Appellate Staff, and what’s an ordinary day like in your position?

A typical day in my job involves research and writing. The Appellate Staff has two primary responsibilities, both of them writing-intensive. First, we produce legal memoranda for the Solicitor General, making recommendations as to what course of action the Justice Department should take in particular cases (whether to appeal initially, whether to petition for cert before the Supreme Court, and so on).  Second, we handle briefing and argument for those cases that do actually go to the appellate level. Right now, I’m drafting a brief defending a judgment in favor of the government before one of the courts of appeal.

As a Staff Attorney, I manage all aspects of my appellate cases with only moderate review from a supervising attorney. I also collaborate with attorneys in the Solicitor General’s Office to draft briefs for Civil Division cases that continue on to the Supreme Court. Finally, I help provide comments on briefs submitted by other divisions (such as the Civil Rights Division, the Environment and Natural Resources Division, and others) in pursuit of their own appeals. One of the best parts of my job is the huge variety of legal issues I encounter: Although reviewers generally specialize in a specific area (e.g. intellectual property, antidiscrimination law, or the First Amendment), staff attorneys do not, so at any given moment I will be handling cases in several different subject areas.

How did you obtain your job with the Civil Appellate Staff?

After law school, I clerked with a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and then applied to several public interest jobs and the Attorney General’s Honors Program. Back then, if you interviewed for the Honors Program, you weren’t given any sense of where the Department of Justice might place you if you were hired. I interviewed with an attorney with the National Courts Branch of the Civil Division (which handles commercial litigation), but my offers came from Federal Programs Branch and the section I ultimately chose, the Civil Division, Appellate Staff.

What was the transition and learning curve like as you began to practice?

The Department of Justice prides itself on giving better training than most law firms: I now serve as training coordinator for my office and, in the fall, organized an all-day negotiations and mediations seminar for our new hires as well as experienced attorneys who were interested.  However, the training program was not as well organized when I began in 1991, and I was expected to learn how to write briefs and memoranda on the job, using models from current attorneys. Fortunately, that didn’t prove very difficult, because one great thing about the Civil Appellate Staff is that people are not proprietary about their work. Attorneys here are expected to collaborate and learn on the job, and people share their briefs and memos for you to use as a jumping-off point for your own assignments.


How did you decide to attend law school?

When I was growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, my father sued the state university system in an employment contract case. He won and became a tenured professor at the University of Tennessee. That experience left me very impressed by the power of the courts to vindicate people’s rights, and I had a pretty good idea even when I went to college that I wanted to go to law school. After I graduated from Northwestern, I applied to law school and graduate school simultaneously. After deferring for two years to attend the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, I arrived at Yale to study law.

While you were at Yale, what did you find most valuable personally, and what most helpful in preparing you for practice (either then or in retrospect)?

I think moot court was far and away the most helpful thing in preparing me for my current job. Surprisingly, though, I didn’t participate until the spring of my third year. Before that, I focused on other commitments: I worked as a research assistant for Prof. Carter for two years, and as an extern in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, all while trying to write onto the Yale Law Journal. When I finally did try moot court in my final year, I found it incredibly fun: I loved writing briefs and answering the judges’ questions. I had participated in theater in high school and college, but I didn’t realize that those skills were transferrable to a legal setting until I did moot court.


What has been your biggest challenge (of whatever kind) as you’ve progressed in your career?

For anyone who wants to have a family, one of the challenges you will face in your career is the struggle to both be a great parent and a great attorney. It’s hard to balance an active family life with an ambitious career, although the Department of Justice makes the effort easier than most jobs: One attorney in my office describes the Appellate Staff as the place most conducive to combine interesting legal work with responsible parenting. Still, you have to balance your ambition to argue the most complex and difficult cases with the recognition that working on those cases will potentially take significant time away from your kids.

I’ve been lucky in that I have a wonderful spouse who’s been amazingly helpful in enabling me to meet that challenge. We met in law school, and he works as a union-side labor lawyer with a small firm in D.C. When couples get married, they often plan for an equitable division of marital labor, but I think I’m one of the few women I know who can say that her husband actually does all the cooking! His job involves more travel, and we’ll often alternate who goes into work on the weekend and who stays home with the kids. Overall, he’s been a terrific partner in enabling me to have a long career of interesting work.

How have you perceived opportunities to advance within the federal government?

The Civil Division, Appellate Staff virtually always promotes from within its own ranks. Most of the attorneys who were hired around the time I was have sought reviewer positions, but I have not, even though I have a degree in public policy/management. Most reviewers review the work of others; very few continue to write briefs or argue in court. This means that if I were promoted, I would have to stop doing the things that I most enjoy, the things that brought me to this job in the first place. So while I’ve struggled somewhat with the decision, I have not applied for a reviewer position for that reason.

There are probably other parts of the federal government where becoming a supervisor doesn’t mean that you give up direct involvement in writing and oral argument, but it’s unusual at the Civil Appellate Staff. I haven’t found remaining a Staff Attorney to be a problem, because I continue to receive assignments in new subject areas that require me to master an unfamiliar area of the law. Of course, if you find that you like to do essentially one kind of thing (or work on one kind of law), it’s harder to know where to direct your ambition. You can always move on to a different section of the Department, but if you’re promoted within the Civil Division, Appellate Staff, you’ll likely find yourself editing other people’s work (which is different and not necessarily as satisfying as producing your own work).

How has being a woman affected you in your career as a lawyer and with the federal government?

When I started my career at the Department of Justice, there were fewer than 40 attorneys in the Civil Appellate Staff, and very few were women. In arguing cases before appellate courts, I very frequently found that I was the only woman in the room (except in the Ninth Circuit, where there were sometimes three or four women).  In that situation, there was additional pressure to excel, if only because judges and opposing counsel so seldom saw women argue in court. Even today, it’s often the case that I’ll enter a courtroom to find myself the only woman amid a sea of men in suits. But the situation has improved, and the Civil Appellate Staff now has many women reviewers and places women on the most high profile and interesting cases.

Actually, from the very beginning, most of the women I saw in court were employed by federal and state governments. The public sector has really been at the forefront of hiring women attorneys and sending them to present oral arguments. That trend has only increased as judges have hired more female law clerks after law school, and more women enter the types of positions that take them into the appellate courts.

How do you think or hope the status of women in the legal profession will change over the next decade?

Gender ratios have already improved in courts, although a bit slowly. Over the next 20 years, I hope we see something closer to parity. I also hope law schools will provide more of the kind of training that will make new lawyers (especially women) comfortable about getting into court: encouraging women to try moot court, getting the word out about opportunities to present oral argument (such as working on an administrative appeal at a law firm, or helping with a pro bono law clinic). I didn’t know about those opportunities when I was in law school, and although Yale has a much more sophisticated clinic system now than it did then, I think it’s still true that women need more opportunities and encouragement to participate in oral arguments and discover how fun and interesting that can be.


What do you think young women lawyers today can do to help effect the change they desire?

In order to get the career that they really want, women should be prepared to advocate for themselves at an earlier stage than they may think is necessary. It’s very difficult to go out and articulate what you want to accomplish, but if you’re not getting the type of cases or the type of experience that you want, you really have to ask for what you want.  It sounds like a simple thing, but it’s not something you typically learn in school.  I wish I had learned how to advocate for myself in law school.

I also think more young women should try to clerk. Some women may not understand that clerking is a credential used by hiring committees to sift through candidates, and may not be aware that by choosing not to clerk, they’re closing a door. Clerking is also a wonderful experience that gives you extremely helpful insights into how judges make legal decisions:  It’s that kind of knowledge that increases your value to other attorneys (whether at a firm or in the government).  I’d urge young attorneys to appeal for clerkships more broadly—not just appellate courts, but district courts, state supreme courts, Article I courts, and agencies—and I’d encourage the same for internships. Internships with judges or with agencies that have judicial decision making authority can greatly help women discover what they want to do in their careers.

Do you have any career or life advice for young women lawyers as they enter the profession?

For attorneys who are interested in appellate work, I’d strongly urge them to show that interest through volunteering to represent pro se litigants after they enter private practice. As a member of the office’s hiring committee, I’ve learned that many people say that they’re interested in appellate work, but make no effort to actually brief and argue cases in the courts of appeal or before administrative agencies.  Interviewers looking to fill appellate positions will look more favorably on a woman who comes in with that type of experience than on attorneys who simply say they are interested in that work.

The best kinds of experience for the purpose of showing interest in appellate work are those that prove not only that you like appellate work, but also that you like it regardless of the complexity or importance of the issues involved. A lot of people feel that they should have an interest in appellate work because they’re smart and high-achieving, but it really isn’t for everyone. You have to be willing to get into court and, outside of court, to work mostly on your own, researching and writing briefs.  If you haven’t sought out appellate opportunities, how do you know those are the kinds of things you want to do?

Outside of appellate work, I think that generally, if you want to achieve something – move into management, focus on a particular type of case – you should be clear about your ultimate goal from the very beginning. If you work for an agency or institution and you have particular goals that the agency cannot or will not help you meet, that’s valuable information that you should have. And Yale Law students should consider going into government more broadly than simply the Department of Justice! I would love to work with more Yale alumni at federal agencies; those institutions are incredibly important, and it helps my office when we work with smart, dedicated lawyers who are steeped in the important statutes that the agencies carry out.

Having worked in government for your entire career, how do you feel about the difference between working at a firm versus fellowship or government work?

I’ve spent my whole career with the federal government, but I think it’s important for students to check out firms so that they can begin a public service career with open eyes. When I was in law school, I worked at the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law my first summer, and split between Cravath, Swaine & Moore and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during my second summer. I also summered at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington between graduation and the start of my clerkship. I decided that I preferred public interest work, but law school is far more expensive now than it was in 1990, and for a lot of students, there’s not going to be a lot of agonizing about whether or not they should go to a firm.  Still, I think that if you put yourself on a budget and pay off your loans, you can (and should) commit to doing what you really want to do.

Generally, the Department of Justice loves to hire people away from firms (although it can be more difficult to join the Civil Division, Appellate Staff that way). Firm work offers different things: You may spend a lot of time on depositions and trial preparation, and there’s competition even among attorneys in the same firm for appellate work in the private sector. At the Department, you will receive a fixed salary that is far less than you’d earn in private practice, but all of your work will be your own.

An illustrative anecdote:  A few years after joining my office, I went to the D.C. Circuit to argue one of my cases.  I ran into a law school classmate, who was surprised to see me and asked, “Who’s arguing for your side?” Of course, I was arguing for our side – it was my case.  He had been at a firm for several years and was there supporting the partner who was arguing against me.  The Department gives you those kinds of opportunities very quickly, and if that’s what you want in your career, I think that the Department of Justice, a U.S. Attorney’s Office, or small firms will give you the most fulfilling experience.