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Melinda Sarafa Remembering that counselor is another word for lawyer

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"Understanding one's role as a counselor helps to ensure that lawyers really listen well to their clients and are able to focus on and respond to the clients' needs most effectively," said Sarafa, a 1995 graduate of Stanford Law School.

Q: How does one break into white-collar litigation?



A: I got into this line of work by starting out as assistant federal public defender in Houston. I was able to get that job by clerking at the federal defender's office during law school and subsequently doing two federal clerkships. Starting out either as a public defender or a prosecutor is probably the best way to get the kind of criminal law background that you need and the level of comfort you need in the courtroom to go on to white-collar criminal litigation.

Q: What are the differences between working for the government and a private firm?

A: When I switched from the federal defender work to private practice, I also switched jurisdictions, from Texas to New York. I dealt with both transitions at the same time. In New York, there are more securities fraud cases. You're also dealing with, in private practice, a different group of clients, namely clients who can afford to retain counsel. In Texas, I had, by definition, all low-income individuals. We had many, many immigration cases, firearms cases, bank robbery, small fraud cases. In New York and in the private sector doing white-collar litigation, you have individuals with professional backgrounds; the offenses tend to involve larger loss amounts. Often the stakes are higher in terms of the federal sentencing guidelines.

Q: What's your advice for new associates?

A: New associates should not be afraid to communicate with the partners and other lawyers in the firm, to ask questions even if they're concerned that they should already know the answer. Law is complex and ever-changing, and no one can be expected to know everything.

I would also say that associates really should look upon every assignment as an opportunity to become indispensable on a case. An assignment that may seem small or insignificant may nevertheless present a real opportunity to get ahold of the facts of a case or become the expert on a particular, perhaps critical, area of law in a case. So don't underestimate the opportunities that come across your desk.

Associates are sometimes reluctant to show as much intellectual curiosity or creative thinking as they may be capable of. That kind of contribution can be extremely valuable.

Q: What should law schools teach that they currently don't?

A: I've often thought that law schools do not sufficiently teach that lawyers are in fact counselors in the truest sense of the word. Lawyers acquire a great deal of knowledge in law school, which ultimately is for the purpose of providing professional advice to clients who either are in the midst of or on the verge of conflict.

Q: What's the biggest mistake an applicant can make when applying for a job?

A: One thing I find to be completely ineffective is sending out form cover letters. It's very important for somebody who's doing a job search to really think about the places they are most interested in working, research those places, and send cover letters and resumes that are specifically tailored to that job.

Q: What was your most humbling experience as a law s`xtudent or new attorney?

A: I found it incredibly challenging when I started working as a law clerk for a federal district court judge to realize I was suddenly in a position of having to come up with the "right answer" in a dispute when presented with motions to dismiss or motions for summary judgment. Obviously, the judge made the ultimate decision, but the law clerks had a tremendous amount of responsibility.

When I was with the federal defender's office, I was handling very, very serious cases, where people were facing, in some cases, mandatory minimums of 10 or 20 years in prison. Being aware of that responsibility is very sobering.

Q: How do you handle that stress and responsibility?

A: By taking advantage of all the resources at one's disposal to make sure that the fullest and most effective representation possible is being provided. That may mean consulting with other lawyers. I was fortunate to work in an office staffed by extraordinary lawyers with a lot of collective experience. This goes hand in hand with not being afraid to ask questions. One of the most dangerous things you can do is not ask questions.

Q: Who's your favorite lawyer in books, movies, or TV?

A: Katharine Hepburn played a lawyer in the movie "Adam's Rib." It's a comedy, but it's a great portrayal of fierce determination on the part of a defense lawyer.

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