A Passion for Policy
As a student at the Law School, Julia Massimino, ’99, never planned on working in a law firm. While many of her classmates were competing for jobs at big firms, Massimino was looking for a different direction. She found it by following her passion for public policy and for making a difference on social issues, leading her to where she is today, serving as chief of staff for United States Representative Howard Berman of California, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
At the end of her first year at the law school, while many of her classmates were hustling for summer placements at firms, Massimino joined the Capital Punishment Clinic. The following summer, she decided to try working at a law firm, but rather than a large corporate firm she went to the tiny Wiseman, Durst, and Owen (now Deats, Durst, Owen, and Levy PLLC). Based in a converted house near downtown Austin, the firm specialized in employment and civil rights cases. Those two experiences led Massimino to think about how she could make a difference on issues important to her on a broader stage. She got her chance the following summer as a legal fellow for the legendary Senator Ted Kennedy, working with his staff on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Massimino had the opportunity to work with the Kennedy’s chief counsel helping to prepare the Senator for markups and hearings.
“I came up [to Washington, D.C.], and basically wandered around, trying to find someone I could work for for free but also looking for a place where I would get good experience. I landed an incredible opportunity for the summer,” she said. “By the time I left, I was completely hooked. I hadn’t been looking to move to D.C., but as soon as I finished school, I came back and got to it.”
Massimino’s trajectory from the Capital Punishment Clinic to a position with a social-justice minded firm to a career in politics reflects what drives her: a passion for justice and a desire to have an impact on the lives of people who can’t afford or access representation for themselves.
“I was profoundly impressed by the commitment and dedication of the people in the Capital Punishment Clinic,” she said. “Most of the lawyers involved with the clinic had come out of the legal resource centers, which had just been defunded by Congress. I was very struck by their commitment in the face of tremendous adversity, but also by how dangerous it was for our government to shut down the one source of committed advocacy for death row inmates. I thought, ‘These are cases with the highest stakes in our legal system, the most vulnerable defendants—people who could lose their lives to mistakes by the system and who would otherwise have no representation,’ and as a student I was stunned that this was the place the government chose to designate as waste that should be cut.” This connection clicked again for Massimino when she got to D.C.
“When I had the experience in Senator Kennedy’s office, I was very impressed by the dedication of his staff, and I wanted to get back there.” She recalled a familiar experience she had during her time at UT Law: “I can’t tell you how many times during law school I heard professors talk about how laws are made, and how the people in the political system that churned out laws often had little sense of how they’d be implemented, or how they’d play out in reality. And I thought, ‘It may not be impacting clients on an individual basis, but legislative lawyering certainly offered the potential to have the kind of impact I wanted to have.”
Shortly after Massimino graduated, a position opened up in Berman’s Washington, D.C., office—his Judiciary counsel was going on maternity leave. Massimino happened to be in town visiting her sister, who told her about the opportunity. “She heard about it, and when I got in she said to me, ‘Did you bring a suit?’ I went in and interviewed, and I really lucked out. The one thing they wanted to know was whether I’d taken an immigration class, which I had. They called me the next day and asked, ‘When can you start?’ I said to them, ‘Well, I don’t really live here yet . . . ’” Massimino wasn’t sure she wanted to live in Washington, but the opportunity was too perfect to pass up. She had heard plenty about Berman and knew that he and Kennedy had worked together on many issues over the years, particularly immigration reform. “I thought, ‘It’s a short term thing, I could just do it for a while and see how it goes,” she recalled. “I started the following week and a few weeks later, I made a quick trip back down to Austin, picked up my things, and moved to D.C.”
While she initially expected the position to last four months, it’s now been ten years, and she’s still working for Berman. The woman whose job she was covering decided to stay at home with her new child, and opted not to return. After starting in his personal office as Judiciary counsel, and then spending several years working in the Courts and Intellectual Property Subcommittee in the House, Berman asked her to be his chief of staff. Massimino also spent two years acting as counsel to two members of the House Judiciary Committee simultaneously—Berman and Representative William Delahunt of Massachusetts. “That was an interesting exercise in conflicts and legal ethics—always representing two parties at the table. I don’t have a lot of colleagues with a similar path. Most people stay with an office for a couple of years and move on around here, but when you start with a senior member who is active, incredibly smart, and dedicated to his work, there’s every reason to stay,” she said.
Berman’s committee assignments dovetail with a number of the issues about which Massimino is passionate, which gives her ample opportunity to focus on the things that made her pursue the law to begin with—albeit from a different angle. The Judiciary Committee has a diverse jurisdiction over everything from constitutional issues to criminal laws, antitrust, judicial branch oversight, intellectual property rights, administrative law, and immigration. She was there when the PATRIOT Act was debated. She was part of the investigation into the Bush Administration dismissal of nine U.S. Attorneys, and she started the investigation into two judges referred to the committee for impeachment. Berman has been on the Immigration Subcommittee for twenty-seven years, which allows Massimino the chance to make a difference in ways that she might not have been able to if she worked as an immigration attorney and provided direct services to clients.
Now, in addition to her policy work, Massimino has a slew of management responsibilities. “A big part of my job is managing and motivating staff,” she explained, “and I do what I can to direct incoming priorities—of course, Mr. Berman manages his own priorities, but I work with what he’s seeing when, and how much time he’s spending on certain things, and I try to help the staff manage their time with him efficiently. He has a lot of things on his plate.”
Still, Massimino is most excited about substantive policy issues. Immigration, for example, has been a part of her role with Berman since she initially joined his office, and it’s something she plans to stay involved in even as chief of staff. She credits her time at the Law School with giving her one of the essential tools she uses in her job, both in a managerial and policy capacity.
“The class that helped me the most in that part of my job was Mediation,” she said. “In my job there’s a lot of dealing with parties—whether in the Judiciary Committee, or even in everyday management situations—who are on two very different sides of an issue. And mediation is great when you’re trying to figure out how to get them at least near enough to each other that it’s worth trying to sit down and talk through things.”
She explained how this often applies in immigration discussions, though it’s easy to see how it comes up in all aspects of her work. “It’s an issue where people on each side have their talking points. But in the end, what all of those people profess to want is a policy that works—where the law’s enforceable. I think everyone is looking for the same outcome, but they can’t look past a lot of details and politics to get there.”
Listening to Massimino, it is clear that the sort of thinking she learned at the Law School helps bring some much-needed rationality to our political system. “There are so many political talk shows that are entertainment masquerading as news with a lot of people whose job it is to yell and scream and find the conflict in everything, but behind all of that, there are 535 human beings in elected office in Congress who interact with each other every day. And for the most part, they’re not screaming at each other. Working there, we can have very cordial relationships with colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and have good, fruitful conversations about the legislation that we’re working on. That’s the way the place is supposed to work.”—Dan Solomon