Sunday, February 26, 2012

U.S. attorney helps volunteer lawyers learn prosecutor's role

It would be tough to beat the responsibility that the federal government invested in Ryan Hershberger at his previous job.

For three years, the Air Force paid Hershberger to be prepared to launch Minuteman III missiles.

Today, the feds merely ask him to put drug dealers in prison. Only they're not paying him to do it.

Why would a profoundly stable and confident young lawyer like Hershberger take that deal?

Because young lawyers, like everyone, are facing tough times.

"It's an abysmal economy," said Hershberger, who attended law school at the University of Kansas.

Hershberger, 29, and two other recent law school grads are nearing the end of a yearlong program at the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas City in which they have worked as special assistant U.S. attorneys, but for no salary.

With unemployment among lawyers hanging around 5 percent in Missouri, and underemployment among young lawyers at nearly 30 percent, U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips saw an opportunity to offer experience and training to recent graduates while maintaining her office's hiring freeze.

"It's turned out to be a positive experience," Phillips said. "We've gotten excellent work, and they're getting excellent experience and training."

When Phillips advertised the three uncompensated positions in December 2010, more than 30 lawyers applied.

"We knew the economy was difficult and there was a pool of attorneys who were having trouble finding work," Phillips said. "But we weren't going to hire someone just because they were available."

Phillips and the lawyers in the program cautioned that their work goes far beyond that given to summer interns. The lawyers receive the same supervision and training that any new hire would receive.

Sara Holzschuh, a 26-year-old University of Missouri law school graduate, noted that both she and Hershberger are carrying full criminal caseloads and working just like any other assistant U.S. attorney.

"I'm in the courtroom every day," Holzschuh said. "I've been able to hone my skills and feel like a real lawyer."

Though Hershberger and Holzschuh paid some dues doing less visible courtroom tasks for the office, such as representing the government in probation violation hearings, both quickly picked up substantial cases on their own.

Hershberger, who works in the narcotics unit, saw an eight-person drug conspiracy case land on his desk his first week in May 2011. And since starting, Holzschuh has indicted more than two dozen gun defendants in her work for the violent-crimes strike force.

But it's the little things that teach you, Holzschuh said.

One defendant in a probation case reported that he tested positive for drugs because his stripper girlfriend had handled some drug-contaminated currency. Another defendant, facing a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm, contended not only that the gun found in his pants weren't his, but that the pants weren't either.

The pants belonged to his brother, the defendant explained, and he didn't notice the gun when he put them on.

"You get some interesting theories that you have to end up disproving," Holzschuh said.

To prepare for the courtroom, both have attended training courses at the Justice Department's National Advocacy Center in Columbia, S.C. And experiences like that can make walking into a federal courtroom without a paycheck worthwhile, Hershberger said.

"A lot of my classmates are sitting in their parents' basements or working as forklift operators," Hershberger said. "Hopefully, this will set me up for success in the future."

The unpaid sojourns in the U.S. attorney's office are unlikely to segue into full-time jobs for any of the current participants. The Justice Department usually asks for about five years of courtroom experience for its new hires.

To make ends meet during the year, Holzschuh has lived at home with her mom and stepfather and pays for gas and car insurance with a part-time job on weekends and evenings. Hershberger said he does odd jobs and lives simply.

But with a good recommendation from Phillips, both are optimistic that their time in the federal courthouse, however uncompensated, will be worthwhile. And both said standing before a judge to speak for the people has been exciting.

"It feels great to do this job and say you represent the United States of America," Holzschuh said. "It's a real honor."

By Mark Morris, 816-234-4310,

Source: The Kansas City Star

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