On the Hill, Working Students Seek Balance

Posted September 23, 2004 at 11:01am

Winston Sale, a 24-year-old staff assistant in the office of Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), is beginning the process of applying to law schools in the D.C. area this fall. If things work out, he plans to spend most of the rest of his 20s earning his law degree at night while keeping his job on Capitol Hill during the day.

That would mean that on top of his usual 40- to 50-hour work week, Sale can look forward to 15 to 20 hours of night class when he leaves the Hill on weekdays plus countless more hours of reading and studying to round out his weekend activities.

It’s a lifestyle he said he’s harboring no delusions about.

“One of my friends described it as a four-year prison sentence,” Sale said. “You more or less give up everything.”

But like many young staffers who go to graduate school part time, the motivation for taking on a life devoid of impromptu happy hours and full of weekends in the library lies in having the ability to continue to advance up the Hill’s career ladder, gain real world and classroom experience and create a more attractive résumé all at the same time. And, according to at least a few of the Hill’s current staffers by day and students by night, with the right amount of time management, planning and a knack for schedule juggling, there can be such a thing as having a life while you earn your graduate degree.

Career Competition

For Sale, who wants to eventually move into legislative policy making on the Hill, earning a law degree isn’t a necessity but more of a good thing to have for his career path.

“In terms of policy stuff you can learn that as you go, but with the law degree you have that professional credential. It teaches you to think in a new way. Being on the Hill you’re surrounded by lawyers, and I think it would make sense to know how they think,” Sale said.

That sentiment is shared by 27-year-old Josh Pollack, a legislative assistant handling homeland security, energy and commerce issues in the office of Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and a second-year part-time law student at Georgetown University. A law degree isn’t needed for all that he does on a daily basis, but “from a legislative aspect there are things I’m much more equipped to do with a law degree,” Pollack said.

“It’s not even so much the credential — that’s part of it, Washington is a town where a law degree is a common thing to have. The credential helps, but even without it there are certain things now that I understand better” with law school training.

Robert Friedman, a Van Hollen district aide who began a part-time law school program at Catholic University last month and wants to eventually move into policy making and international law in the public sector, said that although he doesn’t see himself opening a private practice, a law degree is something he needs to stay competitive with the many eager young staffers looking to move up on the Hill.

“I always tell people who aren’t on the Hill that we have one of the most overqualified job pools in the world. You’re going up against people who are all extremely qualified,” he said.

Sale said he’s known since high school that he eventually wanted to go to law school but since he began working on the Hill, going back to school full time has never really been an option.

For starters, he said he really likes what he does on the Hill along with the group of people he’s met while working in the Congressman’s office. Also, he said if he were to leave his job to pursue a law degree full time he’d have no assurance that a job would be available to him when he graduated.

“The way my chief of staff put it is that if you leave you sort of lose your place in line.”

But besides missing out on seeing the friends he’s made around the office and not being there for opportunities that might arise while he’s away in a full-time program, Sale said that part-time course work just made better sense financially.

By keeping a job and paying for living expenses with a steady income, part-time students set themselves up to be in a better situation financially when they finally earn their degree, Friedman said. By finishing school with less in student loan debt, “you’ll come out in a different position from those who went full time. … You hear stories about people who need six-figure salaries when they come out.”

In essence, he said, having less debt gives you the ability to look at jobs that someone who has large debts can’t take.

Making It Work

The most important qualities for any student staffer to possess is efficiency and a knack for time management. Just ask Chris Lisi.

Lisi has been earning her master’s in social and public policy at Georgetown University for the past two years and is currently the communications director for Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.). She’s also newly married, has two dogs and still says she really doesn’t feel like her work and school life keep her from enjoying herself.

“Sure, I can’t do an impromptu happy hour, but I can do a dinner with five girlfriends a week from now,” Lisi said.

“We’re all highly scheduled and organized people,” she said, referring to her graduate school classmates. “You just have to keep on top of your schedule. … It can be done, it takes a very strong commitment.”

“You have to have a regimented lifestyle,” Friedman said. An avid runner, Friedman makes sure to schedule time each day for marathon training. He usually is able to run before heading to work in the mornings. But Friedman also said that there is an unspoken understanding among everyone in his part-time program that there’s more to life than school work.

“I’ve found that law school, as opposed to cutting down on social outlets, it increases them,” said Pollack. “I’ve met a whole other interesting group of people.” The biggest change he said he’s had to adjust to as a student staffer is that “you sort of lose your weekends.”

But even the most carefully kept schedules can be thrown off by the work patterns of Capitol Hill.

“It’s so hard to predict the legislative calender,” said Jennifer Park, a senior legislative assistant to Rep. Jim Moran (R-Va.) who just last month finished a two year master’s in international affairs at George Washington University. “Sometimes I found myself at four o’clock facing that I might not make it to class.”

When that happens, these student staffers agree that prioritizing Hill commitments and having understanding professors is the key to not feeling overwhelmed.

“There were times when it was tough,” Park said. “During finals I would use my office vacation days to type up papers.”

But Park said Moran and his chief of staff, Melissa Koloszar, were encouraging throughout the process — from the letter of recommendation Moran wrote for her to get into her program to the time she presented the Congressman with her final thesis paper to read.

“I think some offices are probably more supportive than others,” Pollack said. “I knew that in the past this had been done in my office, so I felt comfortable approaching the Senator and chief of staff. I think that’s not the case in every office.”

“No one has asked us if their work isn’t absolutely up to par,” said Sarbanes’ chief of staff, Julie Kehrli. “But if a staff member has been around here for a while and if they want to further their educational opportunities, we want to help them.

“We don’t feel like we are losing any quality of work here, we feel we are helping people gain opportunities for themselves, which transfers to better work for us. … Their first responsibility is to the office, though. They go into it understanding that.”

Meanwhile, Lisi noted that it’s also important to find a graduate program in which the professors understand the Capitol Hill work environment. For example, Lisi said, one professor for a budget class was very flexible when she had to miss a class because the Senate ran late debating the budget in committee. She said most of her professors are understanding because many also hold Hill jobs, and the dean of her program is a former Health and Human Services administrator.

Park agreed. While she worked for Moran on the House Budget Committee, one of her professors was the director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Pollack said that success in balancing a career and school work stems from understanding the scope of the commitment from the beginning and having the desire to see it through.

“I would say my biggest piece of advice is that before anyone decides to go to law school they should have a good sense of why they are going, especially if you are doing a part- time program,” Pollack said. “It’s going to be a large expense in terms of time and money … you’re taking on a rough lifestyle and it’s not a good thing to do if you’re not sure why your are going.

“The people that are most unhappy in law school are those who don’t know why they are there,” he said.

As for Sale, he says he’s looking forward to becoming a student staffer, despite some of the horror stories he’s heard.

“Basically I’ve had more people try to convince me not to go than to go,” Sale admitted. “I sort of empathize with everyone going through this process. The ones that stick it out and go through with it, it says a lot about your character. If you’re willing to go through with all that, you’re really making a sacrifice to the government. I admire that.”