"Wow, you sure are brave." That was a common response I received when I told people in 2009 that I had decided to resign from my position as a first-year litigation associate at a large, prestigious law firm. After all, I would be leaving behind a handsome salary and exciting opportunities; I didn't have another job lined up; and I quit at a time when many lawyers throughout California had been laid off and were scouring a dismal market for jobs.
I truly enjoyed the intellectually stimulating work and my talented colleagues, but as I progressed in my career I became increasingly unable to shake the deep-rooted feeling that I was destined to practice law in the public sector. Then one day I closed my eyes, inhaled, put my trust in God, and made the extremely difficult decision to jump, feet first, into the great unknown.
In the days following my departure, I looked back on my life in the hope that a stroll down memory lane would offer a glimpse into the future position that would suit me best. I recalled the first time I argued in court: I'd never had as much fun as when I stood before the judge in my smart, dark suit, wild butterflies fluttering frantically in my stomach, and I began to argue my case. I remembered why I'd decided to go to law school, and what I'd hoped to achieve after graduating from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall in 2008: to serve the public. I thought about the obstacles I had faced growing up in an inner-city community plagued by crime and violence. I'd attended a public high school in the Bay Area that was better known for its deteriorating condition than for churning out future lawyers. These memories soon enabled me to recognize the next step I would take in my career.
One day early last year, after several months of unemployment, and after endless hours of soul and job searching, I heard about an open position as a Neighborhood Law Corps (NLC) attorney in the Oakland City Attorney's office. The job description was unlike any I had ever encountered. It mentioned trying cases in court--a task that certainly piqued my interest because I love appearing in court--conducting town-hall meetings, addressing quality-of-life issues in the city's poorest and most underserved communities, and much more. If hired, I would be able to use governmental resources to improve the city by tackling some of the worst problems afflicting Oakland. The fact that I would also be eligible to participate in Boalt's loan repayment assistance program was a bonus.
Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity and soon joined a team of incredible NLC lawyers at City Hall, where I fell head over heels in love with my new job. I was assigned to Area 3, which consists of hundreds of city blocks including many diverse neighborhoods that are seriously challenged by crime and poverty. As an NLC attorney I work closely with various city departments to address and abate problems--such as illegal drug activity, prostitution, and inadequate living conditions--in numerous East Oakland communities.
I have also fostered relationships with community members and officials and have worked with them to achieve the common goal of improving East Oakland residents' quality of life. For example, when someone informs me of illegal drug sales occurring at a property, I investigate the issue and often seek to meet with the property owner. If the owner is uncooperative or fails to promptly abate the problem, I explore civil action, if appropriate. I find my work as a public servant immensely fulfilling because I'm able to use a broad spectrum of legal and nonlegal skills in my role.
Life is incredibly short, and when I decided over a year ago to follow my heart and have faith, I found a job that I love.
Tivonna Stern is a Neighborhood Law Corps attorney with the Oakland City Attorney's office.