Profile of Celeste Lopes, Assistant District Attorney
The Samuel N. Hecsh Window on the Working World of Law
Intro: Do you remember Hill Street Blues, Night Court, Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, The Associates or The Good Wife? What do all of these popular TV shows have in common? Answer: hard working, successful, savvy women lawyers. However, Instead of playing a TV show lawyer, Celeste Lopes lives real life American police procedural and legal drama, the very stuff TV shows are made of.
The Story: While in some states, my position is known as Assistant State Attorney, here in New York, my official title is Assistant District Attorney. Basically I am a local prosecutor and my rank within the District Attorney's office, in which I work, is Deputy Bureau Chief. This title is more representative of my tenure in the office and less representative of my tasks.
In my office the typical day of an Assistant District Attorney differs depending upon 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, then in order to help establish culpability, interview any individual 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 the case. I also work closely with members of the various state agencies who 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 work day 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 AM and ends at approximately 6:45 PM. 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. And, it 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 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.
The way I ended up with this job is that during the fall of my third year of law school I participated in the "on campus" interviewing process. This is where representatives from firms, companies and agencies looking to hire new law school graduates go to the various law schools and interview third year students who voice an interest in being hired by one of the firms. Those students submit resumes and then the hiring organization, based upon a review of the resumes, choose the candidates they want to interview. I was fortunate enough to have been chosen for an on-campus interview and then, recommended by the interviewer for additional consideration. I then traveled to NY 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 the very long and exhausting day I was offered a position.
By November of my third year of law school I had 3 job offers and I chose to take the least paying one. As I interviewed with various firms and agencies the skepticism I met that a blind woman could be an effective attorney influenced my decision to do this. Of the three job offers, I felt accepting this particular one would unequivocally prove that blind women could be very effective and successful in the practice of law.
Other than summer internships between my first and second year of law school and my second and third year this is the only job I have had. I have been working in this position for 27 years. I do think those internships definitely help me secure the three job offers I got from the on-campus interviewing.
During my first internship in the summer between my first and second year of law school I clerked for a Chief Federal District Court Judge. This position was non-paying, 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 a bit from others. In the summer between my second and third years of law school I interned in the office of our state's Attorney General. These encounters with work were helpful in understanding how one job leads to another and helps a person establish a career.
Obviously, 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 and I'll tell you what some of them are. Text to speech screen readers are a must. I use a wide variety of off the shelf and proprietary software including but, not limited to, Office 2003, Open Book, Kurzweil 1000 and Duxbury translation program. The most important low tech things I use are a Slate & 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 6th guide dog. All six dogs were trained and issued by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.
A couple of the best things about my job are the ability it gives me to interact with many different people and how 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 pressured, time sensitive issues with quick turnaround times.
To decide whether or not a job like this would be good for you, a person needs to honestly understand the true nature of the work and see if it balances out with the right amount of rewards and satisfaction they need to get from their work. In other words, do your homework and check the balance between assets and liabilities of the job.
Law school is very rigorous; if this is what you want, you need to want it with all your heart and soul. I think that in today's labor market it is a lot harder for young people trying to get into law because nowadays many firms outsource jobs like their research. They 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 your entry way into this line of work.
To keep a healthy balance in my life, I go horseback riding as often as possible, 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 on to 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.
The Contact: Celeste Lopes.
Ms. Lopes is a long standing member of the Board of Directors for the
Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D)
and a member of the American Association of Visually Impaired Attorneys (AAVIA), a division of ACB.
* The American Foundation for the Blind is pleased to present "The Samuel N. Hecsh Window on the Working World of Law," funded by the Samuel N. Hecsh Fund at the American Foundation for the Blind. A new article in memory of Mr. Hecsh appears annually.
After losing his vision, Mr. Hecsh attended law school-with some help from a scholarship from AFB-and had a satisfying career. Feeling he could not continue his previous employment, he met with many lawyers who were blind and attributed his success as a blind attorney in part to his encouragement from these mentors. We thank his wife, Muriel O'Reilly, and daughters, Janet and Caitlin Hecsh, for choosing to honor his memory in this special way. The Samuel N. Hecsh Window on the Working World of Law is designed to encourage other people experiencing vision loss to choose to enter the field of law.