Name: Elizabeth “Lizzie” Brown
Hometown: Washington, D.C. (“D.C. proper”)
Undergrad: Washington University in St. Louis, Arts & Sciences
Minors: Art History
Activities: Phi Lambda Psi (women’s health organization), Escort for Planned Parenthood, Kappa Kappa Gamma
1st Job: Paralegal, Criminal Section, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice
2nd Job: Law Clerk Fellow, Honorable Daniel McCullough
3rd Job: Attorney, NYC Administration for Children’s Services
Current Job: Staff Attorney, Center for Family Representation (New York City)
Internships: Christie’s Auction House, Austism practice, Psychology research lab
Now an attorney practicing in New York City, Elizabeth a.k.a. “Lizzie” Brown didn’t start out sure of her career path. In exploring her options, Brown said it was important in her journey to
- Make connections;
- Try things she didn’t think she would be interested in;
- Work in group settings to learn the dynamics of groups versus individuals; and
- Always follow up.
In her interview, she shares how her interests in psychology and public health led her to a career in law.
Where did you grow up; what was that like?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., D.C. proper. I had a love-hate relationship with the city, honestly. I was very privileged and am grateful for my upbringing. I was surrounded by diverse people, which I didn’t realize was quite rare and I took for granted. I had a great education. But, I was always bothered by the segregation and co-occurring inequality that I saw in my own city and how conservative it seemed when I was growing up. I had always been interested in social justice issues and brought that with me by the time I made it to undergrad at WashU.
I have one older brother, who I am very close with. In and after college, he was into finance, so we didn’t have many similar academic interests, but he was always pretty supportive. He was also into cultural adventures and would take me to concerts and art shows. I learned rudimentary skills about learning from him as well as how to win a fight.
What did your parents do for work?
My dad was a lawyer and my mom was a psychologist.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I didn’t really have a dream job. I was a really realistic kid, so I never wanted to be a professional athlete or an actress, or any of the more traditional jobs children desire. I was always just kind of going through the motions and wanted to explore what I thought I could do.
What was your first paid job?
My first paid job was babysitting.
Why did you choose WashU?
WashU was the perfect size for me. I looked at bigger and smaller schools, and I just thought the medium size in terms of social life and academia were great. I also liked the academics and programs offered. I just saw a lot of good opportunities, both in and outside of the classroom. During my visit to campus, I liked the students and teachers I met, the community and the environment.
What did you study?
I was a little bit all over the place with my coursework, but it was intentional since I have pretty varied interests. I majored and got my degree in psychology, but took many political science and art history courses.
When you weren’t studying, what did you do?
I was in Phi Lambda Psi, which is a women’s health organization. I joined that after serving as an escort for Planned Parenthood in downtown St. Louis, near campus. I would escort women, and some men, past protesters to the clinic on Saturday mornings. I was really interested in public health. I was also a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, though I wasn’t as active. I worked through several internships, many of which were psych-related and some that involved working in labs.
“So I was thinking about my future and what to do and was a little bit lost.”
When did you start thinking about life after college?
I started thinking about it probably even before college, but during college I was really interested in psychology and public health. When I took experimental psychology, I was studying a lot about prejudices in social psychology and doing a lot of reading in different academic journals. Through that, I saw that there was research being done, but not much implementation of all the research, and I think I was frustrated with that. So I was thinking about my future and what to do and was a little bit lost. I thought I would at least try to get some internships and jobs early on so I could get a better direction nailed down.
Was there a first draft of your career plan?
No, I think that would have actually been the draft. I had direction in that I knew I wanted to be generally successful or at least stable, but I wasn’t sure how I was actually going to do that or in what field. I wasn’t geographically constrained in any way and I didn’t think I necessarily wanted to stay in St. Louis. I was open to moving back to D.C., as well as somewhere like New York or the West Coast, or anywhere really. I think I was just looking for any opportunity to work directly with people and to try and make an impact, as high and mighty as that may sound.
“I didn’t get to steal any Leonardo Da Vinci’s and decided that world wasn’t for me, as much fun as it was.”
How did that plan evolve while you were in school?
Each summer, I got an internship to help explore my options. The summer after my freshman year I interned with a psychologist who worked with children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder and other intellectual disabilities. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with vulnerable populations and learn more about the therapy available, as well as other social services that were out there.
After my sophomore year, I worked at Christie’s, an auction house, which was totally different, but I enjoyed it. I didn’t get to steal or invest in any Leonardo Da Vinci’s and decided that world wasn’t for me, as much fun as it was.
Junior year I worked in a psych lab doing research, but it wasn’t as impactful or hands-on as I wanted. My senior year, I knew I wasn’t ready for grad school because I didn’t know exactly which direction I wanted to go in terms of pursuing psychology and public health versus maybe law or policy. I looked up different jobs, but unfortunately, my father got sick that year. I knew I was probably going to have to move back to D.C. I was interviewing with Teach for America and other fellowship programs, but because I couldn’t commit to being anywhere but D.C. after I graduated, that sort of gave me a little bit of direction. I ended up moving to D.C. and looking for opportunities in the social justice field. Luckily, Washington, D.C., is a place that has ample opportunity, so I was able to explore.
How did you learn about your early internships?
I remember going to WashU Career Services to practice interviewing skills and look for opportunities on their website, but there weren’t always many available. Career services was kind of limited in what they had, so I think I ended up looking on Idealist and Googling different organizations that I had heard of and working in a web fashion — not internet web, but spider web — from one search to the next, which is actually like the internet web. I wanted to learn about and expose myself to social-service oriented and non-profit organizations. I talked to a few family friends and professors to get some direction in terms of whether I should lean more toward the practical side or policy side of social justice issues and jobs and where my skill set might be best used and applied. I spoke with a lot of people and did a lot of research, but there wasn’t one main “go-to” resource center that I used.
When you talked with people about career paths, what did you learn?
I think some of my teachers and professors gave me good advice about what fields I should consider exploring. They also put me in touch with practitioners from their previous jobs in the field, before they were in academia, and I think those connections were really helpful. The same goes for family friends in that their connections were invaluable. There are so many different articles out there about the best practices for networking and how to apply your skill set, but I think a lot of it comes down to the actual people you’re meeting and who you’re making actual connections with. I think a lot of it was just talking to people, being referred to others and following that chain to meet with as many people as possible and learn specific opportunities that were out there.
How did you secure the internship?
A lot of it was traditional processes of sending out my resume and cover letter. If I had a connection, I would send something directly to that person or I would send an introductory letter or email saying that I was interested in applying for a position, and asking if I could send them a cover letter and a resume. That allowed the connection to give me some direction and if they had any hints or tips we could talk about it beforehand. Sometimes I would just email people I knew at organizations and ask if there were any opportunities available if I didn’t see anything listed on the website or on public job or career sites.
Which approach worked the best?
I think what worked best was reaching out to connections and emailing them resumes. I also might send something to HR and then email the connection letting him/her know I applied for the job. Following up is really important. If I applied somewhere where I didn’t have a connection, I would send in my application materials and then I would call HR if there was a number listed and I hadn’t heard back in two weeks. I would just call and verify that they received my application and take it from there, since most HR departments say no calls and you don’t want to risk looking like you can’t follow directions or are entitled.
“I sent a perfumed letter and resume. Just kidding.”
How did you differentiate your resume and cover letter from the rest?
I sent a perfumed letter and resume. Just kidding. I feel like — for better or worse — I’m a kind of a middle-path person. I’m very much a face-to-face person, so securing the interview was the toughest part for me, but also then the most rewarding. My cover letters and resumes were pretty standard, but I made sure to try to highlight a personal reason I was interested in or fit the job, and what about my history made me genuinely interested in the job. I had practiced interview skills and I consider myself more of a people person, so I think that shone through. I tried to be really prepared for interviews, even if they were on the phone. I would practice answering questions not using the word “like” and really learned to talk about myself in a way that I think was marketable. Learning how to talk about your skills or any potential limitations in your skill set is important, as well as areas where you can grow. I think that was especially important for someone newly entering the job force.
What kind of preparation did you do for interviews?
I would do some mock interviews with family members and friends, depending on the job. I also did extensive research on the agency and the position so that I was prepared. I wanted to really show that I knew about the position that I was applying for, the type of environment and what the workplace might be like. My goal was to show the company that I would be a good fit.
“I would say my internships in undergrad sealed my interests in social justice policy and then it was really that first job that pushed me into law school.”
How did your internships evolve and help your job search?
It was actually really progressive. My first job out of undergrad I was paralegal at the Department of Justice. I had applied and then realized that one of my friend’s parents was an assistant U.S. attorney there. She wasn’t in the actual department I was applying to, but I let her know that I had applied. I had already been granted the interview, but I still let her know that I was applying and we did a mock interview.
I worked there for three years in the criminal section of the civil rights division. Their focus was on was prosecuting color of law violations, which in plain language is police brutality and going after corrupt police officers who use excessive force, as well as prosecuting hate crimes and human and sex trafficking. It was the perfect opportunity for me because it melded the legal side of social justice policy, as well as some of the psychology that I was looking for. The content of that job was wonderful and the work environment was great. I was really inspired by all of the attorneys and support staff I worked with, and it was really the perfect job to convince me to go into law.
After 3 years at that job, I went to law school. I would say my internships in undergrad sealed my interests in social justice policy and then it was really that first job that pushed me into law school.
At the Department of Justice, what was the rest of the interview like?
I can’t exactly remember. The program I was applying for was specifically targeted at recent undergrad graduates. I do remember meeting with the head paralegal, who had been there probably 30 years. She explained the program, and then I met with someone from HR who also was more familiar with the program and the administrative side of it, but she didn’t really have much substantive information. Then I met with the head paralegal again and a few attorneys and the head of the office who grilled me on my background and interest in the position. I think it was all that same day, one of those progressive interviews where you do a half an hour with someone and then if you do well you continue on. It was a one day interview.
What kind of follow-up did you do?
I would always send a follow up letter or email, depending on the timeline. If they said they were going to make a decision quickly, I would send an email that night thanking them for the opportunity to meet with them and discuss how I could contribute to the organization. I always made sure to send a follow up note of some kind separately to each person I met.
What was the most helpful post-interview follow-up?
When you write a generic letter, you might not get any responses. I noticed the more I wrote about specific things we talked about in conversation, or even including a question, helped. I might tell them I enjoyed talking about such-and-such and was also thinking about this issue and that I would love the opportunity to discuss it further. Including specific things might merit a response — other than someone from HR saying yes, no, or not responding — is a good way to show interest and nudge the conversation forward at the same time.
“But for jobs where I really was interested, I always negotiated.”
Did you negotiate your offer?
Since it was a government position, I knew there wouldn’t be much room for negotiation, but I still tried to negotiate because I had nothing to lose. I knew the position was exactly what I was looking for, so I felt really lucky to get that first job.
With other jobs where I’ve gotten different offers, depending on my level of interest, I’ve definitely gone back and told them I had another offer or asked if they could do better with benefits or another part of the offer. I’ve never just said yes or no. If I had an offer I knew I wasn’t going to accept, I would let them know right away because I didn’t want to burn any bridges or drag anyone along. But for jobs where I really was interested, I always negotiated. That way you learn about the organization and how they deal with different people and different requests and demands. It’s a window into what it might be like down the line to have that person making decisions about you.
How and when do you think students should negotiate?
It’s often context-specific, but I almost think you should always negotiate. Where you can be a little bit more tactful is in your style of negotiating. In general, you should always go in thinking about what you can negotiate, even if you don’t really have much power or leverage in the negotiation. You can always let them know you’re interested in the position and what others have been able to offer, salary-, benefits-, and position/title-wise. You can ask for things like incentives for moving, benefits or bonuses, but try to find something. I think it shows employers that you value yourself, and that if they are willing to invest in you, you might be more dedicated to them.
“I think being prepared to feel like you don’t know anything on that first day is important.”
What did you do to prepare for your first days on the job?
I did little things like traveling the route to make sure I would get there on time, as well as knowing to dress appropriately the first day. I think one of of the things we forget so much, especially for WashU grads, is that we’re so well prepared with the fundamentals of how to think and apply knowledge, but so much of today’s skills are learned on the job. So much of where you may get in life will be dictated by the first jobs or internships and through hands-on learning. I think knowing that and being prepared to feel like you don’t know anything on that first day is important. At the same time, you have to be eager and receptive to learn from those above you. It’s critical to be open to the fact that there are other people in the position who have institutional knowledge and soak it all up.
How did you go about that?
Mostly through meeting people. If certain coworkers eat lunch together in the lunchroom, join them or ask them out for coffee. If there are more senior people who you want to talk to, ask them if you can talk to them about their career path. Assuming you have a supervisor, set up meetings once every week or every other week so that way you’re always checking in and you’re able to do professional development. Most places mandate that, but they don’t always stick to the plan. If there are people on the same track as you, speak with them, compare your experiences. I think that also applies to the negotiation process. In our society, we don’t talk about our salaries much. It’s taboo for whatever reason, but once people start talking about it, you gain so much more leverage both in knowing what you’re worth and also learning different aspects of the job or the different things you can do with the job both internally or externally if you move on. Approaching people and talking to them is really the best way to learn and develop in any job.
How did you learn that law school was the next step for you?
It was a natural move to go from being a paralegal to law school to be a practicing attorney. I had considered doing a dual degree and getting a masters degree in public health, but I decided to focus on the law school piece first. Later, if I thought anything else was necessary to advance my career trajectory or if my interests were still in the health arena, I planned to explore it at that time, but by that point I was really interested in criminal law and becoming a public defender so I focused on that. I knew to get there I needed a law degree.
How did you approach life after law school?
I used the career center and talked with professors and connections I had made from my public service fellowship in law school, previous jobs, and networking events. I tried to get an internship every single semester in fields that I thought would be interesting and would build career connections. For example, I interned with a public defender and then my first summer I interned back at a U.S. Attorney’s office, so I was in a prosecutor’s role again. While it was a great learning experience, I realized that it was not what I wanted to do and I could rule it out. It was a wonderful experience and I was glad I did that rather than just doing public defense every semester, even though I was pretty sure it was what I wanted to do long term.
Did you do anything else to rule out other options?
I took a pretty diverse set of courses and met with my professors from different fields of law, such as corporate non-profit management law and international human rights. I explored how my academic strengths could fit in to what was out there, as well as to rule things out; although hopefully I haven’t ruled anything out permanently. I was interested in international human rights and the criminal aspect of that, so I interned at the United Nations. I learned about different experiences I needed to work in different fields, such as litigation versus policy work. I respected the hierarchy of how things are generally done in law practices, and so I learned from my internships and in talking to people what was expected to enter and advance in a field. For example, it’s very difficult to go straight into policy and you ideally should be a practicing attorney first to hone your advocacy skills and expertise in the policy field. It was pretty linear and easy for me to get some direction from my internships and my coursework.
“If you’re actively interested, make the effort, because so few people actually do.”
What do you wish somebody would have told you about your job search?
I think just stressing the importance of networking. Make sure students know that no one is going to be mad if you reach out asking to talk. If anything, the people being sought out might be a little annoyed at having to volunteer their time, but it’s more likely they will feel a little bit bad if they can’t make time for it. If you’re actively interested, make the effort, because so few people actually do. Try to meet people and discuss your interests and learn from everyone you can. To me, that’s the first sign of motivation and drive.
How do you figure out who to reach out to?
That is a very good question and the distinction is key. I think we all have different levels of access to people. Use career services, your teachers and people you already know. If you’re lucky enough to have parents with connections in fields you’re interested in exploring, talk to them. Otherwise, it’s just cold calling people. If you don’t have alumni connections and those networks, just look up organizations and call people. You may not get a lot of responses, but just keep calling and emailing. Don’t keep emailing the same person over and over, because I don’t think that kind of persistence is good, but send out a feeler and something might catch. The more you’re putting out there, the more you’re going to get back.
When students talk with others, how should they go about determining whether a path would be interesting to them?
I think it’s always safe and appropriate to start with a general how did you get here today? You can ask background. Obviously, it depends if you already know that information or not, but just asking ‘what did you do?’ is a good first step. I think people are happy to share their experiences. Then just take it from there. Some people did it wrong or followed strict paths, and they’ll tell you that. Some people will say it was a lot of luck, but they’ll also give you the tools you need to get more direction.
“Seek out clubs that aren’t always with your friend group so you can meet different people from around campus.”
Are there any projects students should consider doing to help understand more about who they are and what they want to do?
In undergrad classes, I found there weren’t many group projects where I worked in a team. I was an independent thinker and enjoyed working alone, but I think there is something to be said for two minds being greater than one. It’s always good to get second opinions, so I think if you have opportunities to work in groups, you should do it. In addition to volunteering with a diverse group at Planned Parenthood, I also did an after school art program. We would meet before each event to discuss how we were going to approach the students that day and different issues we could anticipate. I think it’s important to be in an environment where you’re learning to collaborate with other people. Seek out clubs that aren’t always with your friend group so you can meet different people from around campus. It will help prepare you for the diversity of talent you’ll experience in a workplace and allow you to work with different types of personalities. And, you learn how to work with different people all working on the same job.
Was there anything else you did at WashU that you found to be valuable?
I most value the connections I made with people, whether it be friends or teachers. I found that a lot of my teachers were very interested in research and their graduate students. I don’t know whether that was because of my class choices around psychology and political science, which had very strong graduate programs. I don’t know if that was the same in different academic departments. There were a few teachers who I would actively meet with after class, whether to discuss a specific assignment or a topic that came up during class. I felt that was nurturing my brain and also helped me learn to talk to people about topics I wasn’t an expert about but wanted to learn more about. I guess I was lucky to have the opportunity to meet with someone, express myself and get their feedback. Taking advantage of the kind of human capital you have in an environment like a college is incredible. Sitting with someone in Whispers, at the library, and talking to them about their experiences is invaluable. If you’re in class with someone who you’ve never spoken with before, ask them what they’re writing their paper on. I think that is a great way to expand your learning and cultivate the questions that will help you find your interests professionally and give you the skills for how to become a good leader and apply yourself.
How did you find your mentors?
A lot of it was just trial and error. Some professors are more receptive than others, so it was really just casting a wide net and then seeing who stuck. Of course, the people who stick are those who you have more of a natural connection with, otherwise they wouldn’t have given you the time of day. I think you get a feel for a person in class or through extracurriculars and learn from conversations that the person has experiences you can tap into and learn from.
Is there any final wisdom you would like to share?
Try to remind yourself of your strengths and that hard work pays off, especially if feeling overwhelmed or defeated during your search and professional growth. Always think big picture. If you’re not sure about your direction, apply the specific tools we mentioned about reaching out to people and focusing on your network. I think it applies even if you do have a direction, because in either scenario, the more people you talk to, the more you’re going to figure out what you want to do now and in the future. People can give you the information for what you actually need to succeed in fields and personalize your track; so I would just continue to stress listening to and talking to people – it’ll increase your knowledge and confidence. And one last piece of wisdom, since it is top-of-mind. I cannot believe I even have to say this. Do not watch porn on your work computer; if you must; watch it on your phone with headphones.