What does a federal district court staff attorney do?
In our district, staff attorneys work for the court at large on prisoner cases. This caseload includes prisoner civil rights cases and capital and non-capital habeas corpus petitions. I only work on prisoner civil rights cases.
Generally speaking, prisoner civil rights cases are when an inmate complains about events taking place inside the jail or prison that they believe are in violation of their fundamental civil rights. Usually, this involves suing the jail or prison officials. Under the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), the court is required to “screen” all prisoner civil rights cases before service. In other words, staff attorneys, like me, draft orders for the court that “screen out” claims that are frivolous, malicious, or fail to state a claim.
What is it like to read prisoner complaints all day long?
One law clerk told me that I was the “prisoner whisperer” because he did not know how I made any sense of one inmate’s complaint. I do feel like a translator for the court at times. I read handwritten complaints and motions all day long and need to organize the inmates’ (often incoherent but possibly worthy) allegations into documents usable by the court and parties. Bad handwriting and stream-of-consciousness writing styles aside, I find the job rewarding. Yes, there are those inmates who try to sue because their food is cold, but there are many more inmates suing over serious health care matters that need to be addressed.
What piece of advice do you wish you had at the beginning of your career?
Don’t be afraid to leave a job that does not feel right. After my clerkship, I went into private practice, but immediately knew that it was not a good fit. When deciding what to do, I struggled on the one hand with whether I would ruin my career if I left too soon. Yet, on the other hand, I was very unhappy. In the end, I stayed less than one year and left to move across the country to become a federal appellate staff attorney. That move ultimately set me on a career path in the federal judiciary where I am very happy.
Do you have a favorite law school memory?
Most of my law school memories revolve around my classmates. I was fortunate to have classmates who were bright, sincere, and caring. I recall friends attending other law schools talking about their cutthroat classmates, but I never felt that way. I have a lot of pride for the Boyd Class of 2006. I enjoy seeing my classmates excelling in this profession—whether as partners at law firms; hardworking district attorneys and public defenders; general counsels; and even a few as judges. The impact UNLV Law is having on the legal profession in Las Vegas, in Nevada, and across the country is truly impressive.