Back in the summer of 1998, I was between my 2nd and 3rd year of law school at the University of Houston. That's roughly the academic time in a law student's life when the big law firms start coming to campus to do interviews with students. Nervous law students hoping and praying to get hired on with one of those White-Shoe firms wear the same damn suit for days in a row as they talk to all of the legal powerhouses from around the city, state or country. There is a notable increase in the general level of stress around the school.
In many ways, it was like league dating. If you wanted to even get an interview with one of the top-tier firms, then your grades needed to reflect that you were a top-tier student. Some of the smaller firms were a little looser with their standards. I remember hating that time of law school because all of my normally laid-back friends suddenly became hyperactive stress monkeys.
For me, it was a little less stressful. I didn't want to get on with a big firm (and with my grades, that feeling was mutual). I had one place and one place only that I wanted to work:
The Harris County District Attorney's Office.
That was it. No backup plan. No safety net. They were the best in the State. They were the best in the Country. They were the best in the World.
I applied for one of the coveted "pre-commit" spots with the Office. If you received one of those, you had a guaranteed job with them that you held while waiting for your Bar Exam results. It was job security provided that you passed.
My interview was with Julian Ramirez and Donna Goode. Julian was fresh off of securing the death penalty on a case where a Houston police officer had been murdered, and I felt like I was in the presence of a celebrity. I interviewed. I thought it went well.
Back then, after an interview with the Office, you received a letter several days later that told you either: a) congratulations! You're invited to be a Pre-Commit; b) Thanks for your application, but we aren't offering you a Pre-Commit spot, please re-apply once you pass the Bar; and c) Thanks for your interest, but we don't feel you would be a good match for our office.
I got the "b" option. Although I thought my interview went well, I wasn't entirely surprised that I wasn't getting a Pre-Commit slot. My grades weren't exactly terrific. Although I was mildly disappointed, I wasn't deterred. I wasn't giving up.
I finished school a semester early (shocking, I know). It was by design. I wanted to take the February 1999 Bar Exam because it was the last one before the State Bar was adding the dreaded "Federal Income Tax" portion to the exam. The prospect of dealing with that scared the hell out of me. I spent all of January and February of 1999 at every bar preparation class that BARBRI had to offer. In retrospect, if I had studied as hard during the rest of law school as I did during those two months, those White-Shoe firms might have actually been interested.
The last day of the bar exam was February 25, 1999. I finished and drove straight home to Bryan. The lease on my apartment ran out three days later, and for the next three to four months, I was a 26-year-old, engaged, law school graduate, living with his mommy and daddy. It paints an attractive picture, I know.
But I still had my eye on that prize. I was just biding my time and waiting for that second shot at applying with Harris County. I worked as a law clerk for the Brazos County Attorney's Office for five (count 'em, 5) dollars an hour, trying cases and waiting on those Bar Results. When I learned I passed, I applied again within the next business day.
I had my (second) first interview with Maria McAnulty at 201 Fannin. She told me at the end of the interview that she would be referring me to the full Hiring Committee. I was giddy. A few weeks later, I was grilled by the grumpy old men of the hiring committee, and I couldn't have been more nervous.
Much to my relief, a week or so later I received a phone call from then-1st Assistant-later-Judge Don Stricklin, offering me the job. I accepted on the spot and told him I'd be there in two weeks. He told me that I didn't have to be there that quickly, but I assured him that it was no problem. I'd been waiting for so long to work at that Office that I didn't want to wait an unnecessary moment.
Honestly, I don't know that I ever worked so hard to achieve something in my entire life.
I bring all of this up now in response to seeing this today on Twitter.
The job that aspiring prosecutors once had to work so hard to get is now actively seeking new employees. Apparently, so many prosecutors are leaving the Office now that they are beginning to find themselves in a bit of a desperate situation. They can't say that I didn't warn them. The problem remains personnel and internal politics.
Over the course of the summer, three highly respected and senior Felony District Court Chiefs departed the Office for the Feds. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two other District Court Chiefs who departed earlier in the year. For those of you unfamiliar with the hierarchy of the Office, a District Court Chief is someone who has attained the level of experience within the Office to manage a felony court. They are the ones who have the experience to try death penalty cases. It is a reward position that honors experience and hard work. Most prosecutors who achieve that position are considered to be career prosecutors.
Senior Felony Twos (those who are on the cusp of becoming chief) are leaving as well. One departing Two told me that she was leaving because she was a lawyer and an adult and wasn't going to spend her career being treated the way the Office was currently treating prosecutors.
Earlier this week, a recently promoted Felony Chief turned in her two-week notice, leaving Harris County to go work for the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office as a Felony Two. To put this in perspective, pretend that you are in the Army and you just got promoted to General. You then resign from the Army to go work for the Marines as a Sergeant. It's kind of like that and with an accompanying pay cut.
I have to admit that I'm not all that surprised by this current rate of attrition. When Kim Ogg took over as D.A. and immediately fired 38 senior prosecutors, she pretty much made it clear that she valued loyalty to her over experience. Is she starting to realize what a mistake that was?
From what I've heard, the Office is trying to offer some incentives to get people to stay. They are now giving badges to prosecutors on their 3-year-anniversary with the Office (it was four years back in my day). I've also heard that they are looking into providing free parking for people who have been there for three years (as opposed to when you make Chief).
Those are nice gestures, but I remain convinced that if the Ogg Administration truly wants to stop losing experienced prosecutors, Kim needs to restructure her upper-echelons. The current situation that her rank and file are working in is miserable enough post-Hurricane Harvey. She can still make a change in the way she treats her people. Being a Harris County Prosecutor is still something that can be one of the best jobs on Earth. Retaining good, experienced prosecutors drastically reduces your chances of hiring a convicted felon as a new recruit.
I remain hopeful that Kim Ogg will realize that it isn't too late for her to turn this bus around. She can still have an office that upholds the platform that she wants as District Attorney and back it up with a formidable squad of experienced trial prosecutors. She just has to stop running off good people.