Degree: Political Science with a minor in Peace and Social Justice
Current location: New York, NY
Year graduated: 2010
Student Organization Involvement: Alpha Phi, Greek Philanthropic Organization, Latino Student Organization, Alternative Spring Break, GIEU
Other jobs held or graduate programs attended since graduation: J.D. from Temple University, Beasley School of Law; Attorney Investigator at the Office of the Inspector General for the City of Philadelphia
XF: I am an in-house legal associate for Democracy Prep Public Schools, a public charter school system based out of New York, New Jersey, D.C., Louisiana, and Las Vegas. We have 22 schools throughout our regions. I am based in our New York City Charter Management Office (the main office), which provides support and certain administrative services for the schools across the country. I do everything from reviewing contracts to assisting with employment and education law matters, risk management, compliance/regulatory issues, and all of the in between. Democracy Prep is 10 years old, so we still have a fair amount of startup-like culture. There’s a lot of ad hoc work as well, including attending to some issues that may not fit well with a particular department. So I do a little bit of everything!
KC: Is it pretty common for schools to have an in-house attorney or legal officer?
XF: A lot of charter schools don’t have in-house legal departments, rather they tend to hire outside counsel. I recently attended a conference in Milwaukee for the Charter School Lawyer Association, and it’s a small group of us for sure.
KC: Being on the legal and management side, do you still directly interact with the kids?
XF: Yes and no. At Democracy Prep, our slogan is “Work Hard, Go to College, Change the World.” Part of that involves a deep understanding and commitment to civic engagement. All of our seniors do a lot of civics work and civics programming, so there is a strong hands-on culture. There are a lot of opportunities for service projects, including some with our kids. I also interface a lot with the principals who might have legal questions or contracting issues, so when I can, I try to get to the schools to be able to assist in-person. I also have a “Change the World” mentee. For the “Change the World” project, seniors pick an issue (it can be micro on a city or community level, or macro) and present a thesis around solving the problem. They’re paired with mentors who help them through the thesis writing process, so it has a research and internship aspect to it.
KC: What drew you to New York City specifically?
XF: I’m originally from New York! Plus, I’m barred in New York and New Jersey. My last job in Pennsylvania wasn’t ideal because of my bars. I knew I wanted to come back to New York at some point since a lot of my family and friends are here, and when I saw this opportunity I went all in, it seemed like the perfect fit. Candidly, I found my boss on LinkedIn and basically told him, “This job was made for me, please consider me!”
KC: What has your career path been since graduating from Michigan leading up to your current role?
XF: I went straight into law school from undergrad. After that, I had a few random jobs, such as working at a real estate firm and working for an immigration non-profit, which I LOVED, but I was making absolutely no money. Then I landed at the Inspector General’s Office in Philadelphia where I worked as an attorney investigator. I loved the work, but it was a little less legal than I had wanted. I was ready for a change and wanted more growth opportunity, which I didn’t really see there.
KC: What about your time at Michigan made you want to go to law school?
XF: I actually knew I wanted to be a lawyer when I was 6 years old! I immigrated here when I was 5, and there was always a huge “unknown” with my family around how all of the systems worked. Things came a little bit harder for us without institutional knowledge. Because of that, I always equated lawyers with knowing everything, and I wanted to know everything and have that “power,” if you will.
At Michigan, I participated in several civics and service programs, as well as Alternative Spring Break and a lot of research and philanthropy organizations. I participated in an Alternative Spring Break to Toronto my freshman year and worked at a refugee center there. They needed someone to help translate for their immigrations cases, and I loved it! I loved being able to help people in a concrete way.
Michigan has a great presence in external communities. You can just see it through the Alumni Association! That commitment to community was so paramount when I was there, and it really stuck with me. I try to replicate that mindset in both my personal life and in my work environment.
KC: What are your favorite and least favorite things about your job?
XF: I love the variety and the latitude that it gives me. A lot of firm positions and other types of legal work are very regulated and monotonous. In my current job, I love that I can be doing a million different things at once and that the employees’ interests are valued. I am frequently asked, “What are YOU interested in?” I think Democracy Prep understands that if you are doing something you like, you’re a happier, better employee. They really do encourage growth.
I’d say my least favorite thing is not being able to help our scholars as much as I would like. We have thousands of kids (I think we’re around 6,000 scholars), and some of our scholars come from under-resourced communities. At the end of the day, I can’t take on all of these families and kids as my clients to help with a housing issue or whatever case may affect them; there’s only so much I can do and only so much time in a day.
KC: For other people who might be interested in combining law and education, what kinds of opportunities would you suggest they look into?
XF: Having a teaching background and gaining a strong understanding of policies and statutes and how they might affect education is big. There are so many statutes on the state level that can affect a school district. I will say that being an attorney is much different in practice from what I expected. I would encourage people to dig into what area of law they want to get into and figure out what it actually looks like on the ground. I’m also saying this as a non-litigator; litigators have more transparent day-to-day job functions. Also keep in mind that you can definitely merge passions within law, like science and law with intellectual property!
KC: What advice would you give to current students hoping to follow in a similar career path?
XF: I was a little surprised going straight through to law school from undergrad. There were certain practices that I hadn’t perfected because I had never worked prior to going to law school. I felt that some of my peers had a leg up because they had real professional experiences, and I was still “phasing out of Rick’s.” I felt like I didn’t come in as prepared as some people, but found that my scholar life was a little less challenging than for some other people. My peers who had been out of school for 5 years had to re-learn how to study. It’s a balancing act regarding figuring out when would be a good time for you to go, but at the same time you can’t predict the future.