Legal Career Spotlight: From Law Clerk to Federal Public Defender to Law Firm Partner

by Kaitlin McManus | February 24, 2019

  • My Vault
Courthouse with Lamp

Sam Josephs is a partner at Spertus Landes & Umhofer, a full-service litigation boutique based in Los Angeles. After earning his J.D. from Georgetown and clerking for the Southern District of New York and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, he became a federal public defender for the Central District of California and served for nearly five years. In private practice, he specializes in white collar criminal matters and general civil litigation and represents students in university-led disciplinary investigations. He was named a California Rising Star in 2017-2019, and to the Top 100 Rising Stars by SuperLawyers. Vault sat down with Sam to chat about his incredible career path.

Vault: What initially drew you to law school?

Sam: I went to college in New York, and when I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Law school was in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t pulling at me like it was for some of my classmates. I worked in the marketing and consulting field and in the strategy part of advertising. I loved it and really enjoyed the research part of the job—learning about target audiences and things like that. After more than four years at that job, I felt as if I should be doing more for the community. In college, I had a strong interest in civil rights work—I was a history major and focused on 20th century social movements. I was initially interested in law school because of an interest in local, New York City politics—something service oriented. I had friends who left advertising and loved law school—which is not an everyday occurrence. One of my friends … convinced me it was something I should go for. I went for it, but I didn’t know what I was in for.

Once I was in law school, I feel like the real turning point was a class with James Forman, Jr. [son of a famous civil rights activist]—I took his class “Race and Crime” in my third year of law school. It was about mass incarceration and minority groups. I talked with him about criminal law and becoming a prosecutor, what that would mean, and about doing good. As we talked more, I saw what it means to be a public defender in today’s society. It reminded me—and perhaps this is a romantic notion—of being a civil rights lawyer in the 60s. As a public defender, your clients are, for the most part, minorities, poor, and fighting a system that they’re not able to be a part of compared to more advantaged groups. I saw being a public defender as a way to help people.

Vault: You clerked for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of NY and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit before becoming a federal public defender—can you speak to that journey and the experiences you had on it?

Sam: I actually didn’t know, when I was starting out, that there were federal public defenders. But the Southern District of New York has an amazing federal public defender office—they’re the cream of the crop. … I saw a bunch of them in court during my time there, and they just blew my mind. They were incredible lawyers. That’s what I wanted to do. Being a federal public defender is different than what most people think about being a public defender—that it’s something you do when you can’t get any other job, or that you’ve got a ton of cases, etc. These lawyers were doing this because they loved it.

Judge [William] Pauley respected the [federal defender] office—he didn’t have a public defender background, but he really respected that office. He is a demanding judge for any lawyer to appear before, and he knows good lawyering, so that made a big difference for me when considering the office. In California, the best briefs I read when I was clerking were from the public defenders in the Ninth Circuit. So Judge [Milan] Smith [of the Ninth Circuit] was really excited about me pursuing the office, as well. It was nice having these two judges as mentors—they understood why I wanted to be a public defender, and I had their blessing and help.

Being a public defender is incredible; it’s a very intense job. For a brand-new lawyer to be given the amount of responsibility and autonomy in a case with such high states is a little overwhelming—for the most part, there isn’t anyone looking over your shoulder. But this was what lawyering was to me. It was exciting, but challenging. The facts were tough, and the potential sentences were unbelievably long compared to state sentences—especially since they were usually non-violent crimes. Most violent crimes (murder, rape, etc.) are charged at the state level. At the federal level are drug crimes (which have mandatory minimums), gun offenses, fraud, and immigration, among others. It’s an emotional job, obviously, because of the amount on your shoulders and the sentences your clients are facing. But it’s a great job, intellectually speaking. There are really smart, dedicated people in the office. And being a young lawyer and having the opportunity to appear in court and stand up for principles I believed in was a rare experience.

Vault: How does your practice differ now that you've gone into private practice?

Sam: In some ways a lot, and in some ways not a lot. It’s a more diverse practice. Matt Umhofer, who I had been on a case with when I was at the defender office, asked me if I’d be interested in leaving to join this firm that he was starting. And at the time I wasn’t, but after talking to Jim [Spertus] and Matt more about what their practice was like and how I was dealing with a small piece of the law, I realized that I could hone my skills, which was exciting to me. In law school, I loved all my classes in a dorky way—I liked law enough to enjoy figuring out any legal problem put it front of me. So I agreed to join.

In private practice, I still handle a lot of criminal cases, but it’s more diverse. I represent a lot of people who haven’t been charged but are targets of investigations, as well as witnesses in cases, and work with internal investigations of companies. You get a broader view of what it means to be a lawyer as opposed to reacting to the moment a person is charged with a crime. I would say, though, that we do more civil work than criminal (~60/40, leaning civil), which I had no experience with when I started other than clerking. To be a good lawyer, you need to be exposed to all facets of the law. So that’s fascinating, that I can keep learning.

Vault: What are some of your more notable cases?

Sam: I’ve had the opportunity to work on some great, high-profile cases. One example would be representing an executive in the FIFA bribery case. I work on Title IX cases in which universities allege sexual assault against a student, which are civil cases but with criminal undertones. I represent students facing internal charges at large universities in California and elsewhere and have enjoyed it and been quite successful. I’ve represented a number of students where we convinced schools to issue findings of non-responsibility or have gotten a number of adverse decisions overturned on appeal.

Our firm is involved in the big Bumble and Tinder trademark case, in which we represent a key witness. I also represented a woman who settled a large False Claims Act case against a law firm claiming a share of her settlement. The case had a ton of really interesting legal issues that made it fun to work on.

Vault: What do you like best about your practice? What do you find to be the most challenging aspect?

Sam: What I like best is figuring out a problem, and helping a client decide the best possible move given that problem. I’ve always enjoyed writing and researching—although it’s nice to not have to be the initial drafter of everything anymore because we have some other fabulous writers and researchers at the firm. I also really like being at a firm that we’re continuing to shape and grow. Having a role in the business side of law is exciting—there’s a real entrepreneurial spirit to it. When I joined, we were 8 lawyers, and we are now 21.

As for challenges, anyone who decides to be a lawyer is in for a lot of hard work. The feeling of constantly working hard and having to fight for everything is exhausting sometimes. So you should be doing something like this only if you really enjoy the actual work.

Vault: And finally, what advice do you have to students who think they'd like to go into criminal or appellate law?

Sam: Try things. There are times in law school when you’re told that a class is really hard, only the top students take it, you should stay away—that’s silly. Take challenging classes that are interesting to you. Law school is a chance to explore different areas of the law and engage your mind in that way. Clerking is fabulous—what you do as a clerk prepares you to be a lawyer. Reading cases or memos from other judges’ chambers—and the fear that your memos are being picked apart by clerks in other judges’ chambers—will make your research better.

Don’t be afraid, don’t follow the masses. Follow what it is you want to do in the moment, not because one job will set you up for the next. It sounds cheesy, but follow your heart. When you talk to people who don’t enjoy their job, it’s sad—you spent all that time and money, and to not do what you like is a disservice to yourself. Taking chances in your career options, so long as they’re interesting, is a no-brainer to me. You’ll always be able to get the job you want if you follow that mentality—no fear, and not worrying about the thing you’re “supposed” to get.

 

Learn more about Sam and Spertus, Landes & Umhofer here.

Sam Josephs

Filed Under: Law

Tags: federal public defender | legal career paths | litigation boutique | sam josephs | spertus landes & umhofer

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