“Where Are They Now?” highlights recent graduates who participated in one or more clinics, and their successful transition to the workforce. This segment features Catherine Tran, a 2008 USD School of Law graduate.
Before Catherine Tran came to USD’s School of Law, she was working on Capitol Hill as professional staff for the Committee on House Administration, the committee responsible for handling federal election law. “At the time, we were dealing with the implementation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act,” begins Tran. “All the people I worked with in the policy unit were lawyers and when I was thinking about making my next career move it made sense for me to go to law school.”
A native San Diegan with family ties to USD (her mother is an alumnus), Tran was excited for the opportunity to return home after spending several years away. After graduating from UCSD with her undergraduate degree in political science, she was selected for the California Executive Fellowship Program, a graduate public policy fellowship in Sacramento. Then she studied in Singapore on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship and eventually made her way to Washington, D.C.
“By 2005, I was ready to go back to school and come back to San Diego,” she notes. Tran enrolled in USD’s School of Law that fall and was first introduced to the Legal Clinics as a work-study student in her first year. She later participated in both the Land Use and Criminal Law Clinics. She chose the Land Use Clinic for the mix of politics, policy and the law, and the Criminal Law Clinic because she thought it might be a potential career. “The clinics are a special experience,” she comments. “I only wish that they could fund more students to participate and that more students would participate. Most, if not all, of the people I know that interned at the clinics came away feeling it was a really valuable and unique experience.”
In the Land Use Clinic, Tran interned with a San Diego City Council office. The City Council is responsible for reviewing applications by homeowners and developers for permits and zoning changes. Tran evaluated the requests to be considered by the Council and prepared advisory memos for the Councilmember. “Land use issues are at the heart of community building,” Tran notes. “Through that type of work in the Legal Clinics I had the opportunity to apply theory and see how legal arguments affect people in their every day lives.”
She also took the networking and relationship-building skills she had learned in politics and applied them during law school. “After having worked for a while before law school, I came to understand that my law school classmates would be my peers in the legal community or whatever I decided to do next,” she explains.
So Tran took the opportunity to get involved and build relationships during her time at USD. She was elected to the Student Bar Association, started the Criminal Law Society, maintained a position on the Diversity Committee and wrote for Motions, the law school’s newspaper. She was also involved in the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA). “Relationships are so important to politics and also to the legal community, particularly now when the market is so tough for new lawyers,” she comments. “I think students and new grads will realize that strong relationship building is essential in our work; people don’t want to hire an unknown or work with someone they haven’t previously met and gotten to know.”
As part of her work with the Criminal Clinic, she interned at the District Attorney’s office for two semesters and was slated to do a post-bar courtship there. However, her previous employer in DC offered her a post-graduation position as the Policy Director for the House Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives Leadership Office. She accepted the position and, among other issues, she worked directly on the healthcare reform bill. “No matter your political beliefs, the fact that Congress and the President were able to pass healthcare law after 100 years of presidents and congresses trying and failing is a historic accomplishment. One we probably will not see for generations to come,” describes Tran. “And I can truthfully say I played a meaningful role in that work.”
Leaving her position in DC in 2011, she returned to California to work in San Francisco as the Business Development Manager for Cubic Transportation Systems, which provides fare payment infrastructure including gates, ticket machines and smart card readers. “It’s a different sector, but many of the things that I learned in law school, at the Legal Clinics and on Capitol Hill apply here,” states Tran. “Lawyers must be good sales people; they are selling a certain position or argument. I also work with governmental agencies and organizations, so my understanding of politics, government and the law is helpful.”
When asked of the impact the Legal Clinics has had on her career she states: “I’m not the type of person to take the same path home every day. I like to explore and see how things work and test the boundaries. The Legal Clinics allowed me that outlet. I wasn’t stuck in a library reading cases all day long. It breathed life into what we were studying and that made the law more meaningful for me and therefore more memorable.”