What I Wish You Knew: Zara Friedman, J.D.
Principal Appellate Court Attorney
Written by Zara Friedman, J.D., edited by Laura Schaefer
My title is Principal Appellate Court Attorney. I work in a law department (a group of attorneys) for an intermediate-level appellate court. An appellate court reviews what happened at the trial level, and decides whether the party appealing is entitled to have the decision of the trial court changed, in any way, based on the arguments made by that party on appeal.
My job is to write a report for the judges in which I summarize what happened below (either at trial or in motion papers), summarize the arguments on appeal, and discuss the relevant law. I make a recommendation as to how the appeal should be decided, and I write a recommended opinion for the court. Reports can be anywhere between five and 100+ pages, depending on the size of the record and the legal issues that are raised. I also have other responsibilities, like making recommendations on motions to my court and reviewing the work of other attorneys.
I left a litigation job for this job because in law school I always maintained that I wanted to be on law review for a living. This job is mostly research and writing, and I figured that this was the closest I was going to get.
The best result
I enjoy my colleagues, so that's where any happiness or joy comes in. I do sometimes feel fulfilled. I like that, rather than trying to obtain a result for a client, I can look at the law and try to come up with what I think is the best result. We live in a common-law society, which means that the law is constantly evolving through appellate decisions, and I really enjoy being a part of that.
I was not surprised when I had a difficult time finding a job when I got out of law school. I was grateful that I was working by September (after having graduated in May and taken the bar in July), but I was definitely not doing the kind of work that I had planned on doing. The big surprise, I think, was that it didn't seem to matter to anyone in New York that I had graduated from a top-tier law school (University of Maryland). In terms of doors being open to me, I probably would have been better off going to a lower-ranked local law school if I couldn't get into a higher-ranked school. I took myself off the wait list for GW Law, and wondered for quite some time if that had been a mistake.
I've never been great at networking, and I have tended to underestimate its importance. I also made the decision in law school that I did not want to work for a huge firm so that I could work myself to death and get rich quickly. Because of that, I didn't work as hard for good grades as I could have, and that ended up limiting my choices more than I had expected. Ultimately, I'm happy in my job, so it is difficult to say that I regret my choices.
What I wish you knew
Regarding the law in general, I wish people understood that lawyers specialize. It seems to me that there is an assumption that all lawyers go to court as litigators, but that they can also do your real estate contract for you so that you don't have to pay someone. Television really doesn't help with that. I'm looking at you, Suits. In truth, the laws of every state are different, and litigators usually know nothing about contract law, real estate law, divorce law, etc. (This is not true of small, very local general practices.) Many litigators have never even done a trial – that is how specialized the practice of law is.
People don't know anything about my job, but I'm okay with that. I'm not sure how the general public would feel knowing that there are a group of attorneys advising judges on just about every decision they make. Considering how people distrust those in power, I'd like to think it would be a comfort to know that there is a deep knowledge base behind the decisions that are made by judges who are elected or appointed. In New York, they are elected. On the other hand, I imagine people might feel like a measure of control is being taken away from them.
I would like to be promoted so that I can run my department the way I think it should be run. Perhaps, after that, I'd like to continue to work my way up in the court system. I think I would be a good judge, but I don't think I'd be good at running for office, which is what is required where I live.