Alumni Interview Series: Interview with Walter Norkin
The N.Y.U. Journal of Legislation & Public Policy is proud to introduce our Alumni Interview Series! Legislation’s Alumni Interview Series features distinguished alumni of the Journal discussing their careers after law school and reflecting on their time spent on the Journal.
Walter Norkin is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He graduated N.Y.U. School of Law in 2000 and was the Editor-in-Chief of Legislation his third year at NYU.
Note to Reader: the following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Katie McFarlane: Tell us a bit about yourself. How has your career developed since graduating from NYU Law School?
Walter Norkin: I came to NYU in 1997 and graduated in 2000. When I was going through law school, I was very interested in corporate law and in corporate litigation. I used to get very excited reading the Wall Street Journal and seeing two corporations duke it out in court. At the time I thought that was where I wanted to go; I had an undergraduate degree in economics. So it all seemed to make sense to me.
[After graduation] I started working in the private sector. I worked in a big firm, at Cravath. I was very excited to get that job. I felt like I worked very hard: first, to get into NYU, and then to get a job at Cravath. I really felt I made it and I was going to be a partner in a law firm—that would be my future.
After about one year at Cravath, I realized that was not at all what I wanted. I looked around at the practice and what being a corporate litigator really was and I just wasn’t as convinced that [corporate litigation] was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
To buy myself more time and to keep my marketability, I got a clerkship. That is what I did in my fourth year out of law school; I clerked at SDNY. That was the first time I saw criminal prosecutors, the first time I saw AUSAs. [Criminal prosecution] was not at all on my radar in law school.
Part of my thinking for why it wasn’t on my radar [is that,] in addition to being someone who was very corporate-focused at the time, I [had taken] classes in criminal law and [had seen] people who were so passionate about criminal law and [who] knew so much. I thought to myself, I am never going to be able to compete with those people; they just have so much more of a background than I do, [and] I should stay in my lane where I read the Wall Street Journal and that’s what I know about.
But . . . when I saw AUSAs for the first time, sitting next to a judge at SDNY, I looked at the AUSAs and thought, I could do that. [T]hey seemed to be having a lot of fun, they seemed to be really enjoying the work, [and] they seemed very committed to it. Some of the mystique that I felt in law school when I looked at the people . . . [who were] so passionate about [criminal law . . . had now dissipated.] I didn’t see the same kind of barrier to being an AUSA when I saw what AUSAs actually did all the time. That was the first time that I looked at being an AUSA as maybe a possibility—that this was maybe something that I would like. So that year of the clerkship I kind of explored [the idea] more. There was a guy who was on the Journal and he was also an AUSA at EDNY, so I had lunch with him and talked with him about what that was like, and that was really the beginning of my career veering in a very different direction than I ever expected going into law school and coming out of it.
KM: Turning back the clock to your time at law school, what is your favorite memory from your tenure on the Journal?
WN: I think what was special for me about being on the Journal was [that] it really . . . gave more of a purpose to my third year of law school. I felt my third year, as far as classes, was a little bit anticlimactic. The first year, you come in and everything is amazing and there’s this pressure [that] one exam will determine so much of your grade in school. So everyone is kind of thrown into the trenches in their first year. And then second year, you are on a journal and you kind of find your bearings a little bit in class, so there’s a little bit more stability in second year. Then third year is wide open as far as choosing classes. But most people already have their job offer and so they know what they are going to be doing. For me, I thought the classes were kind of anticlimactic where I felt like I hit a plateau. I knew how to approach the classes and there wasn’t the same kind of challenge I felt first or second year.
It was really nice to have the Journal to give me meaning as far as my third year. I think truthfully if I didn’t have the Journal I would have been one of those people to miss a lot of classes and would have been off enjoying all that New York has to offer—the night life, the museums, the restaurants and everything else—and would have done a lot of skating through my last year. But what was nice about the Journal is it brought you back to the law community and kind of gave you more purpose as to why you were at NYU.
KM: Are there any classes that you would recommend students take because they are valuable for practice?
WN: I do look back and I am very grateful for some of the things that NYU offers that when I talk to people who went to other schools didn’t seem to have the same kind of experience. I don’t know that any of those classes by themselves were standout, I think so much of it had to do with who was teaching it. I really think NYU did a great job hiring people who weren’t just experts in their field but were also very captivating speakers. I have always been grateful for that experience. If I could pick three years to do again, just for fun, it would be law school.
It is hard to say that a class prepares you well for life because, until you are thrown into that situation where you have to do research and write a brief it is very hard to just draw on something that you learned in class and say, I’m just going to spit that back into a brief, as opposed to re-researching it.
But you do learn how to think and that is an important thing that people who aren’t lawyers and who haven’t practiced for a while have a hard time grasping. There is so much of the law that is a balancing test and is about fairness. I don’t know if this is the same at all law schools but I certainly felt that NYU prepared you to be a lawyer that way—to think like a lawyer, to understand the law as a whole concept as opposed to [thinking], well, here is property law and then here is landlord-tenant disputes and then here is criminal law and they have nothing in common. They are certainly different, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of the big concepts are the same across all those areas. Once you understand that, you really just get a better sense of how to be a lawyer, how to be persuasive, [and] how to do your job.
The lowest grade I had in law school was my criminal law class. And yet for 15 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve gotten promotions, [and] people say I’m pretty good at it. That is why it is really hard to say you can tie a direct correlation between a class and how you are going to be out of academia. It is not that I think [the grade] was undeserved, but [a class] is not something that will necessarily dictate how you will do in the real world. [If you get] a bad grade in intellectual property, don’t let that stop you from becoming an intellectual property lawyer.
KM: What drew you to join Legislation rather than a different journal?
WN: I think there were two things—one is that Legislation, when I joined, was relatively new and so there was a kind of excitement to building something. It is the same kind of thing where you really feel part of something and you can shape something and you can make a difference. It is kind of the same feeling where there is something that is yours, that you can kind of wrap your arms around and feel like I wasn’t just along the assembly line, I actually had a real role in this and I feel some real ownership and that is something that is very rewarding.
The other thing that I think is special about the Journal [is that] you really had a diversity in viewpoints. I was always very proud that Legislation had people on the right, had people on the left—articles were published with positions on both. It forced everyone to be in the same room to talk, to get along, and I always really liked that about the Journal.
KM: What was your proudest moment from your time on Legislation?
WN: So I was Editor-in-Chief of the Journal, and the two weeks prior to publication were just a bear. I think my proudest moments were the night before publication, being able to get the Journal out. The process at the time was [that over] the last two weeks we had to basically re-review every single comma, just re-reading and re-editing it from cover to cover. There were late nights and runs to Arby’s to get chicken nuggets and French fries. I spent two weeks in there before the publication of every [book]. So that was my proudest moment on the day I could say it’s done: The issue is coming out.
KM: What was most surprising about working on the Journal?
WN: I think one of the most surprising things [was that] the Bluebooking that I hated as a 2L actually comes in very handy. You think you’re terrible at it, it’s confusing, it’s a pain in the ass, and then you have an experience like I did when you are clerking . . . you get these briefs where the citation is all over the place, and as a clerk I am trying to figure out what case he is actually talking about that I am supposed to read to understand the argument. That was one of the things that was surprising to me, as much as I hated cite-checking and Bluebooking. I was very surprised at how handy that turned out to be in real life.
KM: How did Legislation prepare you for legal practice?
WN: I think it is so challenging to draw on something from academia and say, here is the direct parallel [showing] how it applies in real life. The things that I thought were the most valuable parts of the Journal were not necessarily the things that translated into me being a better lawyer. I think it translated more to making law school meaningful, feeling like part of the community, and engaging with people. [Being a part of the Journal] is helpful in a way that you don’t see from your classes because typically [at law school] you are interacting with a professor . . . the Journal is different—you are trying to do something collective with your fellow students.
KM: What advice would you give to current members of Legislation?
WN: Just to enjoy the time and take advantage of the positive aspects of the Journal. Because there will come a time when you do not necessarily have a chance to explore things on an intellectual level, work as a team to put out some kind of product, or where you do not have as much opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to something. What is great about the Journal is, this is an opportunity to do something that is yours, right now, to feel like you have ownership of it and I think it is just a matter of taking a step back and appreciating this opportunity.
Katie McFarlane is the incoming Senior Quorum Editor for the 2019-20 academic year & J.D. Candidate, Class of 2020, N.Y.U. School of Law.