Her Plan A: Borrow tons of money, get accepted to law school and become a corporate tax attorney so she could repay that humongous debt while daily wearing a black suit and being miserable because she didn’t really want to be a corporate tax attorney.
The full irony of that career plan weighed upon second-year Georgetown University law student Amanda Fuller in September of 2008 as she read the newspaper waiting for an interview with several leading corporate law firms.
Front-page headline: Lehman Brothers Bankrupt.
The giant New York-based financial firm had folded, signaling the onslaught of a worldwide financial crisis. This was not good news for a corporate tax attorney-in-training.
It was the final push Fuller needed to search out an alternate, more personally-fulfilling career path in public service. Fuller is now deputy district counsel for real estate, civil works and civil works contracting for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District.
Born in Aurora, Colorado, she lived in the same house until college. “Then I up and moved 3,000 miles to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to do my undergraduate work,” says Fuller. “Life on the east coast was a huge culture shift from the Denver area.”
After earning three bachelor degrees from Wesleyan in four years, she applied to several law schools. “I really wanted Berkeley or Stanford, the only two schools that didn’t want me,” Fuller laughs. She was being courted, pun intended, by multiple Ivy League schools and had already been accepted by several other prominent law schools.
But campus visits to most of the east coast law schools never felt comfortable. The law students she spoke with were exceedingly competitive at heart. “You’re in it to win it” was their motto, even at the cost of your colleagues and peers, she said. “And I found that unacceptable.”
“I loved NYU, but I just couldn’t live in New York City,” she says. “Then I fell in love with Georgetown University Law Center and with life in Washington, D.C. – a decision I will never regret.”
She enrolled in the Georgetown law program in 2007, swinging over to public service law coursework after her second year there.
“Georgetown is the leading public service law school in the United States and I started taking administrative and environmental law courses that changed the kind of students I met and studied with,” she says. “That was a big change and I got happier and happier.”
The GU Law Center is close to Capitol Hill and many federal staffers study law there.
After that change of direction, Fuller scheduled on-campus interviews for government jobs, including the Corps, with whom she interviewed twice. She didn’t hear anything for several months.
“I called and was told the Corps actually had selected me for the Honors Program,” says Fuller. “They just hadn’t told me yet.
“It turned out you are selected into a pool of qualified applicants, ranked and whenever a district has an opening, you get notified,” Fuller explains. She joined the Sacramento District in December 2010.
“There are a lot of times when I’m on the younger spectrum of people in a team meeting at the Corps,” says Fuller. “There are many occasions where other professionals on the team know the answer, but need a lawyer to sign off on it.
“That kind of collaboration is important in making good decisions,” she says. “Both sides of that conversation have something of value and bring different expertise and perspectives.
Fuller is also aware that the function she serves in the organization can sometimes seem inflexible and insensitive.
“Balancing these two things: being respectful, attentive and collaborative; while at the same time upholding what can be a very inflexible standard -- that can be a challenge,” she says. “I try to be open and upfront with folks to let them know who I am and I have some really good friends at work who will alert me if they feel I’m coming off as antagonistic.
“Sometimes lawyers don’t understand how uncomfortable conflict is for other people,” says Fuller. “The Socratic Method is at the heart of law school – you study in a state of constant questioning.
“Every sentence you say in law school is open to challenge from the instructor or your colleagues, so you have to know what you’re saying and be ready to defend it,” she adds. Fuller was highly active in high school and college debate teams. She admits a fondness for spirited discourse.
“Sometimes during a project delivery team meeting, it’s not clear to everyone when I’m acting as a team member, when I’m acting as a lawyer or both,” says Fuller.
“I thought about getting a set of color-coded hats, so that my role is very clear at any given moment in a team meeting … oh, purple hat, she’s speaking as a lawyer,” she laughs.
“I used to spend a lot of time worrying about how people perceived me, especially in law school, trying to be someone that other people would like,” she admits. “In the last five years I just gave that up.”
Fuller says the Corps’ Leadership Development Program was probably the single best personal growth coaching she’s ever experienced. “LDP taught me to be the person you want to be and the people you want in your life will come to you.”
Why do attorneys, in general, get such a bad rap in society?
“Most people’s first interaction with an attorney is because of a divorce or a death,” says Fuller.
Know any good lawyer jokes?
“Lots!” she says.