The OPIA Blog

Alumni Spotlight: A career path in voting rights

“I thought my career was ruined,” recalled Ms. Elizabeth Westfall of the moment that she found out she did not receive a Skadden Fellowship. It was the fall of 1995, and she was 3L, planning to embark on a career as a civil rights attorney. Now it seemed liked her “life was over.” Thankfully, it wasn’t. To the contrary, since her graduation from HLS, Ms. Westfall has worked at two different law firms (the law firms now known as WilmerHale and Relman, Dane and Colfax, PLLC), two non-profits (Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Advancement Project), and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Back in 1995, however, her dreams of working to further women’s rights seemed impossible. She had spent her time at HLS taking courses such as Employment Discrimination and Voting Rights to gain a substantive foundation in civil rights. Although she believes that those courses were important, she cautions students against becoming too focused in one substantive area while in school. Instead, she emphasizes the importance of gaining skills, such as litigation, that are transferrable, and critical, to any legal practice area. Indeed, throughout her career, she found that her experience in litigation put her at an advantage vis-à-vis other lawyers. Many of her colleagues had never been in a courtroom.

After learning that she did not receive a Skadden fellowship, Ms. Westfall participated in “on-campus hiring” and was immediately hired by WilmerHale, despite never having summered there. She decided to move to Washington, DC to be with her fiancé. She concedes that today’s legal market is very different from the “boom” days of the 1990s. With firms cutting back and hiring fewer associates, “on-the-spot hiring” is not very likely. Therefore, she advises students to choose summer internships very carefully with an eye to their futures. For example, she suggests that students interested in civil rights split their summers between “major civil rights shop[s] and firms that give litigation experience.” She also encourages students to build relationships with both supervisors and peers because “it’s all about whom you know.” She believes that the people that students meet during their summers could have a large impact in the future, particularly in small practice areas. She also suggests that graduating students settle in the city in which they want to practice long-term in order to develop roots and network.

Ms. Westfall spent two years at WilmerHale doing traditional defense work for large corporations. She believes that during her time there, she received valuable training that laid the foundation for what set her apart from other attorneys involved with civil rights advocacy. After two years, however, she began searching for other opportunities in the DC area. She employed a strategy that she recommends students use while searching for jobs. She was broad in her search and reached out to people in the HLS network by “blindly calling alums.” By word-of-mouth, she learned of a staff attorney position with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. There, she began working on Fair Housing Act litigation, a field that was new to her. About a year into her work, one of her colleagues decided to start his own firm and asked her to join him. She spent the next five years working on fair housing and public accommodation issues at a firm then known as Relman & Associates. She gained “tons of litigation experience” and even did class action work.

By 2004, however, Ms. Westfall was ready to try something new again, preferably related to the upcoming election. Once again, through conversations and networking, she came across an ad for a position at Advancement Project conducting temporary grassroots organizing. She got the job, but it ended up being something entirely different. As it turned out, Advancement Project was looking for someone who could manage the organization’s litigation; the majority of young attorneys there were not experienced litigators. Ms. Westfall, on the other hand, believes that litigation expertise and the skills gained through litigation (strong research and writing skills) are key components of advocacy work. Indeed, once she started hiring attorneys at Advancement Project, candidates with litigation experience stood out to her. Still, she notes that litigation experience is not a prerequisite for doing advocacy work, particularly for those students who are interested in policy work and have no desire to engage in litigation.

Through her work at Advancement Project, Ms. Westfall also developed management skills—she learned how to “develop a work-plan, execute it, and hold others responsible.” She believes that students interested in advocacy work should cultivate such skills early in their careers because while traditional litigation creates its own work-plan, advocacy work does not. So having management experience and training sets candidates apart. Ms. Westfall worked her way up to Director of the Advancement Project’s Voter Protection Program.

In 2010, with the election of President Obama, Ms. Westfall decided that she wanted to work in the Justice Department and joined the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division as a trial attorney. In many ways, she has come full circle with this position as she is investigating and litigating her own cases. Yet, she is enjoying her work because she works with “some of the most talented voting rights lawyers in the country on high profile voting matters.”

She hopes that through learning about the variety of her experiences students come to understand that while “you cannot control your career,” “there are plenty of brilliant and talented people serving individuals, groups, and issues.”

Written by Former 1L Section Rep Tharuni Jayaraman