Yale Law School

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Katherine Kimpel, JD '06

Managing Partner
Sanford & Heisler, LLP
Washington, DC
Areas of Specialization: Civil Rights/Liberties, Employment, Litigation, Class Action
30 attorneys

I work as a plaintiffs’ attorney, litigating class action civil rights cases. The bulk of my work centers on employment discrimination, although I also handle other types of public interest litigation. I came to law school looking, as I said in my YLS application essay, to “get bigger guns in the fight for social justice.” I am incredibly fortunate to have a job that allows me to dedicate myself to that fight on a daily basis.

For some reason, plaintiffs’ civil-rights firms seem to be an often-overlooked aspect of the public-interest community, but now that I’m here I can’t imagine working anywhere else. While at law school, I spent as much of my time as possible in the clinics (with the rest of my time being spent in Vicki Schultz classes). In many ways, my firm is a continuation and amalgamation of those two environments. Our office is very collaborative and collegial, lacking the typical hierarchies you think of when you hear “firm.” It is a dynamic, often chaotic, always interesting environment. We handle more cases than seems possible for our number of staff and win more victories than seems possible in light of the state of the federal judiciary. In the midst of it all, we have a lot of fun—firm happy hours every Friday, occasional dance parties during late nights, etc.

Students interested in doing public interest work need to take the time to really research the environments in the places they may go to work—far more than those going to a traditional firm. As hard as we have to work to make up for the inequities between our resources and that of the defendants’, the work environment makes it so that I never feel burdened by that hard work – something that can’t be assumed or taken for granted just because a workplace is “public interest” oriented.

The non-traditional aspects of my firm translated into immense opportunities for me professionally. In my first year, I took and defended over thirty depositions of corporate representatives, experts, and fact witnesses; personally managed all aspects of written discovery for two nation-wide class actions; drafted and submitted briefs to both the district and circuit courts; second-chaired successful private settlement negotiations of both small individual claims and large class claims; and handled a court-approved settlement. After having been at the firm only a few years, I became a partner. In that role, I’ve served and continue to serve as Lead Counsel in numerous employment class actions—most rewarding being our victory in the largest gender discrimination class action ever to go to trial (Velez v. Novartis). I also manage the firm’s largest office and handle recruitment and hiring for the firm.

I strongly encourage people considering public interest work to ask specific questions about the sort of work they will do in the first year, the second year, etc. Along with asking about the “day-to-day” activities, it is important to get a sense of when you can expect to be responsible for authoring your own briefs, taking and defending depositions, managing your own cases (individual and class action), etc.

In trying to get a job at a public-interest firm, patience and flexibility are key. Civil-rights shops like ours can’t do regular hiring. Often, we can make a young attorney a “litigation fellowship” offer, which can turn into a full-time position if the firm’s resources and work-flow accommodate. I began with the firm as a fellow, and even if I had had to go back on the market after a year, I would have been far more marketable than I was prior to the experience. A good bench-mark for expected salaries is the DOJ pay scale, although salaries may be a bit higher at more successful firms. In addition, bonuses based on individual performance (and firm health) can really increase. An attorney at a firm like mine certainly won’t make money at the rate of our peers who go to BigLaw, but it is a more livable alternative to many of the non-profit options.

If someone is really interested in doing public interest litigation at a place like my firm, I cannot overstate the importance of getting as much clinical experience as possible. In addition, our community is a small one, so securing summer work with a well-respected plaintiffs’ public interest firm does a lot to get your foot in the door. Finally, it is important for applicants to convey a passion for our work; that passion can make up for vast inequities in resources. Our work is incredibly demanding, but we get through the darkest days because of a mutual commitment to the fight for social justice.