Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Memories from D.C.

Washington, D.C. is the only city where you can run into the Magna Carta on your way to read the Declaration of Independence. It's the only place where you can listen to oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court and then chat with Justice Scalia weeks later. It's the only spot where you can stumble across the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald in a small cemetery by the freeway. It's one of the only districts where tango dances are held in libraries, where everyone reads the newspaper during morning metro commutes, where people listen to jazz and ice skate in sculpture gardens.

During my semester in D.C., I learned that the city has an identity apart from the White House, Capitol Hill, and the National Mall. Washington is not a strictly professional and political district, as I originally thought, but a personal capital where government employees head to happy hour after work, where the classy streets of Georgetown are converted to a costumed bar crawl on Halloween.

Here are the people and places that allowed me to see D.C. beyond its museums and monuments:

My Internship
I interned at a whistleblower law firm and non-profit organization that represent high-profile clients such as White House employee Linda Tripp, FBI Agent Bassem Youssef, and lead Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino. Despite their heavy caseload and reputation as some of the best whistleblower attorneys in the field, lawyers wore T-shirts and jeans to work when they were not scheduled to appear in court. Everyone knew my name. Doors were left open and questions were always welcome. The lawyers liked to discuss politics, painting, sports, and gardening. They were human. They made the law seem less intimidating. I felt like I was a member of a family rather than an intern at two legal organizations.

Fittingly, the law firm and non-profit center are located in Georgetown townhouses decorated with the attorneys' own artwork. My days began with a 20 minute walk from the Dupont Circle metro to the firm and not-for-profit organization in the heart of Georgetown. Everyday, before I passed a row of Victorian style houses, I waved hello to a worker selling French crepes. I felt like a Washingtonian instead of a city visitor.

Favorite Internship Memories:
  • Teaching attorneys to cha-cha and sampling vegan food at a lawyer's house party
  • Listening to Christie Hefner speak at the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards
  • Exchanging music and listening to Phil Ochs with my supervisor
  • Hearing a leader from the Philippines discuss the challenges that whistleblowers face in his country
  • Group lunches from Wisey's and homemade ice cream from Thomas Sweets (also has some of the best fudge in D.C.)
  • Reading intake forms from whistleblowers across the United States and reviewing their claims with the firm's lead attorney
  • Talking with law student interns, my supervisor, my supervisor's mother, and my co-workers about everything ranging from law school to fashion
  • Drinking tea and listening to panel discussions at a whistleblower seminar at the historic Willard InterContinental Hotel
My FriendsThe group of friends that I made in D.C. were as diverse as the district's population. Together, we represented Oregon, California, New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Missouri, Boston, Korea, and Mexico. Although we all came from different states and countries, we understood each other well and I felt like we were together for years instead of months. (My friends still liked me after they learned of my garden gnome fetish, for example). I loved meeting new people, trying different things, learning about other cultures, and hearing fresh opinions.

Favorite Friend Memories:
  • Cruising under man-made waterfalls and eating pizza with vodka sauce on our trip to New York
  • Listening to slam poetry and going to a hip hop concert on U Street
  • Grocery shopping and cooking our own turkey dinner for Thanksgiving
  • Watching Giselle at the Kennedy Center
  • Conversation hours with a friend from Mexico
  • Salsa dancing at Café Citron and tango dancing at the West End Library and Chevy Chase Ballroom
  • Taking a ghost tour of Old Town Alexandria
  • Eating Indian food at Adams Morgan
  • Farewell dessert at the Old Ebbitt Grill, a historic oyster bar and grill near the White House

After my semester internship in D.C., I know that I want to apply to law schools and I am aware of the steps that I must take in the admissions process. I return home with a new confidence that comes from working in an office, living independently, and socializing with different people.

Now I'm off to the other Washington to finish my senior year of college. Farewell, D.C.! I'll be back.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Read All About It

The Newseum, like its name suggests, is a museum dedicated entirely to telling the history of the news and the media. Located at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue (there is a beautiful view of the historic street from the top floor of the building) and Sixth Street, the Newseum is by far my favorite museum in Washington, D.C.

The interactive Newseum blends five centuries of news history with information about current technological trends (blogs, for example) and their effects on the news. Here are a few of my
favorite Newseum exhibits:
  • Eight 12-foot-high sections of the Berlin Wall and a three-story watchtower that once stood near Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin. After examining the graffiti on one side of the wall and stepping inside the tower where guards were ordered to shoot anyone trying to escape, I read about the role of the media during the Cold War
  • The Watergate door complete with the taped doorknob that alerted a security guard on site to suspicious activity. The door led to the arrest of five men attempting to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters under President Nixon's orders
  • Kennedy's notes from the first televised presidential debate
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning photos (The exhibit includes the photographers' descriptions of how they captured their incredible shots)
  • A 4D theater with moving chairs and squirting water. The movie features the history of Nellie Bly, an innovator in 19th century investigative reporting. Nellie Bly went undercover as a mental patient at the Woman's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island and revealed the mistreatment of patients
  • Front pages from around the world (The headlines during my visit focused on Black Friday and the Wal-Mart worker trampled to death by crazed shoppers)
  • A place to vote for the breed of dog that Obama should take to the White house (I voted for the Bichon)
  • Videos of memorable inaugural speeches

A visit to the Newseum is not complete without stopping by the interactive newsroom where you can become a news anchor. I picked the U.S. Supreme Court as a background. My brief report about the controversial issues on the Court's current docket was then broadcast on all of the TVs in the museum.

The Rest of the Week at a Glance:
  • Made homemade stuffing and mashed potatoes for a Thanksgiving feast with friends
  • Saw the San Francisco Ballet perform Giselle at The Kennedy Center. The Second half of the ballet was breathtaking. Set in a foggy forest, Giselle danced from her grave in a white tutu
  • Ate salmon at Sequoia, a restaurant by the waterfront in Georgetown

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Pentagon and Pancakes

Last week began with a visit to the Pentagon and ended with a stack of famous blueberry buckwheat pancakes. Here's what kept me busy:

The Pentagon:
On Monday, I toured one of the world's largest and most powerful office buildings. About 23,000 military and civilian employees work at the Pentagon, the headquarters for the United States Department of Defense. My tour only covered one mile of the five-sided building where workers send approximately 1,000,000 e-mails and make around 200,000 phone calls daily.

As part of the tour, I stood in the very corridor where the hijacked Boeing 757 crashed into the Pentagon on September 11. I glanced at the names of Medal of Honor recipients in the nearby September 11 Memorial Chapel. I learned about the four branches of the military (Navy, Air Force, Army, Marine Corps) which, much to my embarrassment, I could barely name before visiting the Pentagon. I was surprised to find the Pentagon decorated primarily with quilts. These patched works of art, gifts from U.S. and foreign citizens to commemorate the lives lost on September 11, gave the massive military institution an oddly homey feel.

The National Press Club Book Fair: When I arrived to work on Tuesday, a co-worker from the National Whistleblowers Center asked if I wanted to help pass out informational brochures at the National Press club's 31st Annual Book Fair and Author's Night. My co-worker told me that Bunnatine Greenhouse, a well-known whistleblower who refused to support corrupt Halliburton no-bid contracts in Iraq, was scheduled to help promote a book on American whistleblowers at the event.

After meeting and shaking hands wi
th "Bunny," I perused the tables of books at the fair. In the center of the room, surrounded by Secret Service, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia sat signing copies of his book, Making your Case: The Art of Persuading Justices.

Although he is extremely conservative and outspoken in court, Justice Scalia was unexpectedly personable as he signed my copy
of his book. I used the opportunity to tell him how much I loved hearing oral argument at the Supreme Court. Justice Scalia said that oral argument was his favorite part of the job. He asked me which case I attended. When he finished writing, he smiled and said that he liked the name "Elena." Apparently, a girl in line asked Justice Scalia when he would cross over to the liberal side. He merely replied, "Don't hold your breath."

"The Crown Jewel of Pennsylvania Avenue": The National Whistleblowers Center hosted a seminar on Friday to train attorneys on whistleblower protections in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The Act, a response to recalls of toys with lead paint and other hazards, protects whistleblowers and inspectors in the manufacture, distribution, and sale of consumer goods who report products that violate safety regulations. I helped set up tables, registered participating attorneys, and listened to all of the panel discussions on the new legislation.

The seminar was located in the Taft Room of the Willard InterContinental Hotel. Just a few blocks away from the White House, the Willard is known in D.C. as "The Grand Dame of American Hotles" and as "The Crown Jewel of Pennsylvania Avenue." Chandeliers, red carpeting, and marble adorned the lobby of the Willard. A few feet away from the entrance, the elite drank tea and ate petit fours while a man in a tuxedo played classical piano music.

The National Museum of American History: After a two-year closure for renovations, The Smithsonian National Museum of American History opened on Friday. My friends and I went to the museum, but changed our minds after seeing the large lines waiting to view the exhibits.

I refused to leave, however, without seeing the ruby red slippers that Dorothy wore in The Wizard of Oz. Judy Garland was only 16 when she wore the size 5 sequined slippers. My kind of shoe, the ruby red slippers were made with felt soles for dance sequences. Originally silver in Frank Baum's novel, film directors changed the shoe color to red so that Dorothy's slippers would stand out against the yellow brick road.

There's no place like home, but Washington D.C. is a close second.

Library of Congress: During my tour of the Library of Congress, I learned that the library was established in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill ordering government to move from Philadelphia to Washington. The bill provided for a reference library for Congress that was housed in the new Capitol. In 1814, however, British troops set fire to the Capitol and pillaged the library. Thomas Jefferson came to the rescue and offered his personal library as a replacement. An exhibited entitled, "Thomas Jefferson's Library" featured the 6, 487 books that Jefferson provided to replace the congressional library. More than 2,000 of these books actually belonged to Jefferson and were once placed on his shelves.

The Library of Congress is ornately decorated with marble staircases, quotes about the importance of books, mosaics, and presidential busts. From the second floor, visitors can look into the reading room. A perfect vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible, one of three, is displayed on the first floor.

The Eastern Market: Washingtonians flock to the Eastern Market on Saturday mornings to buy crafts and "Blue Buck" pancakes. Strangers cram next to each other at a single, narrow table and eat their syrupy breakfasts. After waiting in line for at least a half-hour, I sampled a stack of three blueberry buckwheat pancakes. Delicious!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Legal Advice

One of the best ways to learn how to prepare for a career is to ask for advice from experts in the field. Here is what I learned this week:

Richard Renner:
Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, LLP

On Monday, whistleblower attorney Richard Renner spoke at a panel discussion hosted by The George Washington University Law School. Other panelists at the event included Wayne Madsen, a Washington, D.C. investigative journalist and former National Security Agency communications analyst, and David MacMichael, a former CIA analyst. Richard brought life to the audience of students and whistleblower advocates by clearly describing the complicated array of current U.S. whistleblower laws. He ended with sage advice for students interested in pursuing the increasingly popular field of whistleblower law.

Richard began his part of the discussion by pointing out that whistleblowers exist in every type of workplace. Lawyers, in fact, are mandatory whistleblowers. As the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct dictate, a lawyer must swear to speak out if they witness misconduct by a judge or a fellow attorney.

Although "Whistleblowing is part of leading a transparent life," Richard stressed that the United States does not possess a comprehensive whistleblower protection law. Due to the “messy patchwork” of whistleblower acts and statutes that exist today, whistleblower rights vary based on state, job type, and whether an employee works in the public or the private sector. As of now, there is no general law that grants all whistleblowers the right to a jury trial.

Why Whistleblowers Need Good Lawyers:

Richard explained that seven federal environmental laws passed in the 1970s protect whistleblowers. The administrative process used to enforce whistleblower rights in these laws is now also used to protect certain employees in the transportation industry (truck drivers, airline employees, public transportation workers) as well as employees who report corporate fraud.

Six out of these seven laws, however, have a statute of limitations of 30 days. This means that if a whistleblower does not file a written complaint within 30 days of their disclosure, they are out of luck. Naturally, many whistleblowers are unaware of this strict time limit.

Whistleblowers who report health and safety violations and who manage to file a timely complaint with the Occupational, Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the agency that reviews these types of whistleblower claims, are not guaranteed protection. If OSHA finds that a claim has no merit (which is frequent), these whistleblowers do not have the right to appeal, file a lawsuit, or appear at a hearing. Unlike these health and safety whistleblowers, environmental whistleblowers do have the right to appeal to an Administrative Law Judge. While this process is more fair for whistleblowers, it is still not as as just as jury trials.

On a similar note, Richard told the audience that federal National Security whistleblowers must bring their claims to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. This board rules against whistleblowers 99% of the time. The Federal Court of Appeals, the next level after the Merit Systems Protection Board, also has a bad record of upholding whistleblower rights.

Richard’s Advice on How to Prepare for a Career in Whistleblower Law:

  • Take employment discrimination classes in law school
  • Join the Unemployment Action Center:
  • Get trial practice in employment cases by working with the Department of Labor

Kiley Kane: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Immigration Litigation

On Wednesday, I took the metro to Judiciary Square to meet with immigration attorney Kiley Kane at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Immigration Litigation. I kept my eyes open for Obama and Biden as I passed through the many levels of security (The offices of the soon-to-be president and vice president are located in the Department of Justice building during the presidential transition period). Unfortunately, there were no political sightings.

Ms. Kane is an appellate-level immigration attorney, which means that she writes briefs and appears on behalf of the Attorney General in oral arguments at the various federal circuit courts of appeals. Ms. Kane does not work directly with immigrants and asylum-seekers. Since petitioners are not called to testify during oral argument, Ms. Kane rarely meets the very people that she argues should be deported.

In one of her most interesting oral arguments, Ms. Kane defended the government against a man from Palestine who sought asylum (Asylum cases are one of the most common types of cases in immigration law). Since the U.S. does not recognize Palestine as a separate state, Ms. Kane was faced with the difficulty of persuading the judge to send the man back to nowhere. The case, an example of the foreign policy implications that often come into play during immigration trials, was sent back to trial court on a technicality.

From my interview with Ms. Kane, I learned that defending immigrants and asylum-seekers against the government is like playing a game of blackjack against the dealer. Considering that U.S. immigration laws favor the government and that the Department of Justice possesses considerable resources, government attorneys typically win 9 out of 10 immigration cases. Since the odds of winning an immigrant’s defense case are slight, fewer quality attorneys represent immigrants and asylum-seekers. This lack of qualified representation adds to the injustice that immigrants face when fighting against strict U.S. immigration laws.

Although it is more difficult to win cases, working as a defense attorney has its advantages. As opposed to government work, defense work offers attorneys variety and an opportunity to personally benefit from direct relationships with clients.

Essential Skills for an Immigration Attorney:

  • Attention to Detail. Immigration Law is so detailed that it is second only to tax law in terms of difficulty
  • Creativity. Since immigration laws are rigid, a defense attorney needs to be able to think of creative ways to make their client’s circumstances fit within a given law
  • People Skills. Essential for working as a defense attorney

Ms. Kane’s Advice on How to Prepare for a Career in Immigration Law:

  • Take immigration law and administrative law classes in law school
  • Participate in a clinic. Ms Kane learned that criminal law was not a good fit after she worked in a Public Defender’s clinic during law school and realized that she was unable to relate to the clientele
  • After law school, start out by working with the government to learn immigration law from a highly structured environment
The Rest of the Week at a Glance:
  • Attended a forum hosted by the American Bar Association on how to make courts fair and impartial
  • Sat in on a Criminal Procedure class at Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law. Loved it! Law school is not as intimidating as people make it seem
  • Went to a two-hour LSAT strategy class
  • Saw Quantum of Solace

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Fall of the House of Poe

A highlight of my day trip to Philadelphia was visiting Edgar Allan Poe's "Spring Garden" house on North Seventh Street. "Spring Garden," the name of the cross street of Poe's home, is ironic. Although the title, "Spring Garden" connotes a neighborhood with white picket fences and manicured lawns, the brick home where Poe lived from 1843-1844 is now situated in a slum. The author's modest house is surrounded by decrepit apartments and trash. Besides his unfurnished home "maintained" by the National Park Service, all that remains of Poe is a mural on a run-down building and a misleading statue of a raven (Poe did not publish the famous poem until January of 1845, about a year after he moved from his Pennsylvania abode).

Why is a rented apartment where Poe lived for a year recognized as a national historic site? Poe was at the peak of his writing career while he lived in the small, two story building. During his stay at the Philadelphia house, Poe published some of his most famous stories such as "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

Edgar Allan Poe invented the modern murder mystery. He was found dead in a gutter wearing strange clothes. Every year on the anniversary of his death, a cloaked man places a flower and alcohol on his grave. Like the author, Poe's house is shrouded in mystery. Always tight for money, Poe most likely sold all of his furnishings when he moved in 1844. The Park Service decided not to try and replicate what Poe's apartment might have looked like in the 1800s. Without furniture, visitors are forced to use their imagination to picture the setting where Poe lived with his young wife (and cousin) Virginia, his mother-in-law Maria, and his calico cat.

The most eerie room in the house, the basement, is said to be the inspiration for "The Black Cat,"a short story that also appeared in print during Poe's stay on Seventh Street. In the story, the narrator murders his wife and then places her corpse in a partially sealed chimney. Today, visitors can see the original chimney that may have triggered Poe's morbid imagination.

Surprising and uninviting, glossed over by most tourists, I am sure that Poe's mysterious apartment is "preserved" exactly as he would want.

The Rest of the Week at a Glance:
  • Listened to a lecture by the former chief auditor of the U.S. Government Accountability Office
  • Saw Betsy Ross' house, Constitution Hall, and the Liberty Bell
  • Ate my very first Philly cheesesteak sandwich ("wit" onions, of course)
  • Watched Obama win the 2008 presidential elections!
  • Salsa danced at Café Citron

George Washington: Man and Mansion

George Washington was about my age when he inherited Mount Vernon Estate from his half-brother Lawrence, who died of tuberculosis in 1752. The elegant Virginian estate that visitors tour today looks nothing like the humble house that Washington received after Lawrence's death. Although Washington only had the equivalent of an eighth grade education when the property fell into his hands, he immediately began planning ways to renovate his half-brother's ordinary country home. With the addition of two wings, a second and third story, a piazza, and a cupola, Washington transformed Lawrence's six-room farmhouse into a twenty-room mansion. Here, alongside the Potomac River, George and Martha Washington lived happily from their marriage in 1759 until Washington's death in 1799.

In Washington's era, men did the decorating. (They also danced. Perhaps I was born in the wrong century . . .) My tour of Mount Vernon began in the very dining room where Washington became America's first president, a job without a job description. The blue and sea foam green dining room, complete with a marble mantle and wooden candelabras, led to a columned piazza. After pausing to admire the scenic view of the Potomac from the porch, I continued to the piano room and guest room (also painted in blue and sea foam green . . . Washington's colors of choice, I guess). Next, I climbed the stairs to view the master bedroom, the only room that Martha decorated. Martha's decor was surprisingly stark in contrast to her husband's colorful designs. The bedroom, painted all white, was furnished with a simple desk and select pictures of grandchildren. Before exiting the mansion, I walked down the same stairs that Washington used to get to his private study every morning after awaking at 6 or 6:30 AM. Finally, I stopped at the kitchen, an open room separated from the estate. I was shocked to learn that burns were the second leading cause of death among women in the 18th century, as it was easy for their dresses to catch on fire while they cooked over an open flame. Washington's exterior and interior renovations were certainly a success: George and Martha had so many guests that the couple only ate unaccompanied once in 20 years.

You do not need the cherry tree myth to see that George Washington was a man of extraordinary integrity and talent. He was a farmer, an architect, a military general, a president, and a scholar. He increased the Mount Vernon plantation from 2,000 acres to 8,000 acres. He designed a 16-sided "trotting" barn for horses that revolutionized wheat production. He commanded Virginia's militia in the French and Indian War. He organized and led the Revolutionary Army. He served as the head of the Constitutional Convention. He set a precedent for future presidents by giving up his power as Commander in Chief after two terms.

Despite his numerous accomplishments on the battlefield and in political halls, George Washington felt most comfortable at the Virginian estate that he worked so hard to construct. In a letter, Washington wrote, "I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of state and the representatives of every power in Europe."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Nightmare on M Street

For Halloween, Washington, D.C. donned a mask and transformed itself from professional capital to party city.

The metro, usually full of government workers in business attire, was overrun by men in foam beer suits and women in corsets. Witches, devils, penguins, and grim reapers replaced lawyers and politicians. Newspapers, the choice reading material d
uring long metro commutes, were torn and wrapped around beer cans (There is a strict no food or beverage rule on the trains).

Costumed Washingtonians flocked to Georgetown, the hot spot for Halloween in D.C. Police closed the streets for "Nightmare on M Street," a club-hopping event on the main Georgetown drag. Mobs of people waiting to enter the bars made it impossible to move. Live musicians set up their gear on the street corner and filled the standstill crowds with Halloween spirit while simultaneously promoting Obama. I enjoyed people-watching in what is normally one of the classiest neighborhoods in D.C.

A Few Costume Trends: Sarah Palin, subprime mortgage lenders (Only in D.C. . . ), flappers, the Joker
My friend dressed as Abraham Lincoln . . . Simple, yet effective. Here are a few responses he received from D.C. dwellers:
  • "Hey, I have one of you in my pocket!" -A man shouting from his car
  • "That's not a rabbi, that's Abe!" -A man corrects his friend
  • "Lincoln! Our 14th President!" -A slightly intoxicated gentleman in Dupont Circle. My friend's response: "Actually, I'm the 16th president. But that's alright, buddy."
The Rest of the Week at a Glance:
  • Toured the White House! President Bush was working just a floor above me in the Oval Office. I especially enjoyed the "Red Room."
  • Took a midterm in my criminal law class. Am learning to read and brief U.S. Supreme Court decisions that deal with Fifth Amendment rights.