October 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 6

Employment Issues

Window on the Working World: Assistant D.A., Deputy Bureau Chief, Rackets Division

The Samuel N. Hecsh Window on the Working World of Law

Editor's note: Content for this article was compiled and edited by Detra Banister, AFB CareerConnect program specialist.

What do the popular TV shows "Hill Street Blues," "Night Court," "Boston Legal," "Ally McBeal," "The Associates," and "The Good Wife" have in common? Hard-working, successful, savvy women lawyers. Celeste Lopes, however, is not an actress, but an assistant district attorney, whose daily life is filled with legal drama--the very stuff TV shows are made of. Recently, she shared the story of her professional growth in the world of law.

While in some states, my position is known as assistant state attorney, here in New York, my official title is assistant district attorney (D.A.). Basically, I am a local prosecutor and my rank within the D.A.'s Office, in which I work, is deputy bureau chief. However, this title is more representative of my tenure in the office and less representative of my tasks. I have had this position for 27 years.

In my office, the typical day of an assistant D.A. differs depending on the type of bureau to which the attorney is assigned. I am assigned to a bureau that investigates white-collar crime, which includes, but is not limited to, embezzlement, forgery, fraud, and official corruption.

As such, I am predominately involved with investigating allegations of criminal activity. I review the allegation and then, in order to help establish culpability, interview any individuals who might be a witness to the alleged crime or who might provide information that will help lead to the next investigative step. Additionally, I review numerous documents to establish the "paper trail" needed to prove a case. I also work closely with members of the various state agencies that investigate these matters, as well as the local police and investigators employed by the private sector. Likewise, I also work with detectives and financial investigators employed by my office.

Some characteristics of a normal workday at my office could involve reviewing a large number of documents, interviewing witnesses, reaching out to investigators to discuss the investigative plan and findings, and drafting subpoenas to obtain documents needed to further the investigation. Typically, my day begins at approximately 8:15 a.m. and ends at approximately 6:45 p.m. It is sometimes necessary to work a few weekends.

If you happen to be an entry-level D.A. or prosecutor, you will be expected to process a large number of documents, both typed and handwritten. This has to be done in a short amount of time in order to make quick, informed decisions. Therefore, before applying to any prosecutor's office, you will need to determine ahead of time how you will process the documents that will relate to a large number of different cases in a professionally and fiscally acceptable manner to an office with limited budgets.

I came upon this job during the fall of my third year at law school when I participated in an on-campus interviewing process. This is where representatives from law firms, companies, and agencies looking to hire new law school graduates interview third-year students who are interested in being hired by one of the firms. Interested students submit resumes and the hiring organizations, based on a review of the resumes, choose candidates they want to interview. I was fortunate enough to have been chosen for an on-campus interview and recommended by the interviewer for additional consideration. I traveled to New York for a full day of extended interviewing. Some of these interviews were one on one and others were two on one. But at the end of a very long and exhausting day, I was offered a position.

By November of my third year of law school, I had three job offers, and I chose the lowest-paying one. As I interviewed with various firms and agencies, the skepticism that I met from interviewers who wondered if a woman who is blind could be an effective attorney influenced my decision a great deal. Of the three job offers, I felt that accepting this particular position would prove, without question, that blind women could be very effective and successful in the practice of law.

Other than summer internships between my first and second and second and third years of law school, being a D.A. is the only job I have had. I do think those internships helped me to secure the three job offers I got from the on-campus interviews.

During my first internship in the summer between my first and second years of law school, I clerked for a chief federal district court judge. This was a nonpaying position, but the experience and the job I did resulted in a very nice letter of recommendation. I believe having this letter opened doors for me because it made my resume stand out from others. In the summer between my second and third years of law school, I interned in our state's attorney general's office. These work experiences were helpful in understanding how one job leads to another and helps a person to establish a career.

Being successful as a blind employee means modifications and accommodations on the job are in order. There are a number of devices and other things I use to help me accomplish all of my daily tasks. Text-to-speech screenreaders are a must. I use a wide variety of off-the-shelf and proprietary software including, but not limited to, Office 2003, OpenBook, Kurzweil 1000, and the Duxbury translation program. The most important low-tech things I use are a slate and stylus and a talking calculator. For orientation and mobility purposes, I choose to use a guide dog. I trained with and received my first guide dog during the summer between college and law school. Now, 30 years later, I am working with my sixth guide dog. All six dogs were trained and issued by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.

The best things about my job are the ability it gives me to interact with many different people and the lack of repetition--no two days are quite the same. When successful prosecutions happen or an investigation culminates with victims being made whole, that makes it all worthwhile, and the high stress factor shrinks. Nevertheless, the long days and hours remain with very high-pressure, time-sensitive issues requiring quick turnaround times.

To decide whether a job like this would be a good fit, one needs to understand the true nature of the work and see if it balances out with the right amount of rewards and satisfaction. In other words, do your homework and check the balance between the job's assets and liabilities.

Law school is very rigorous; if this is what you want, you need to want it with all your heart and soul. I think in today's labor market, it is a lot harder for young people trying to get into law because many firms outsource certain jobs, such as research. Firms can contract with lawyers out of the country for a fraction of the cost. This makes the competition fierce for newcomers.

Something to keep in mind is that jobs in smaller towns are probably more manageable than those in large cities, so if you are willing to move, this may be a good way to move into this line of work.

To keep a healthy balance in my life, I go horseback riding as often as possible. I also participate in Ski for Light, Inc., and enjoy doing things with my niece, her children, and other friends and family members. I was blessed with parents who passed onto me a lot of faith and courage. When I wanted to do something, they would often say, "If you can figure out how to do it, do it!" And that's what I will say to you, too.

Celeste Lopes is a longstanding member of the board of directors for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, and ABILITIES. She is also a member of the American Association of Visually Impaired Attorneys, a division of the American Council of the Blind.

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