Learning from seasoned lawyers truly helps law students gain perspective on where they want to take their legal career in the future. In this edition of the Law Student Podcast, New ABA Law Student Division Chair Johnnie Nguyen talks with Colorado’s U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn about his career experiences and how he came into his current role.
He offers valuable insights on how to pursue what you love, the importance of finding good mentors, and how to handle inevitable professional missteps with integrity.
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step.
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Johnnie Nguyen: Hello and welcome to another episode of the ABA Law Student Division Podcast. My name is Johnnie Nguyen and I am the National Chair of the ABA’s Law Student Division, and today I am incredibly excited to have Mr. Jason Dunn here who is the U.S. Attorney of Colorado.
So, Jason, let’s just jump right into it. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself, your professional background, and then I’ll ask you something about your personal background too?
Jason Dunn: Sure. Well, it’s great to be with you. I’m a Colorado native grew up for the most part in Colorado. I was the son of two public educators. My mom was a teacher and my dad was a school administrator. I kind of grew up in the Denver metro area and my dad became a School Superintendent up in Montana, so I went to high school in Bozeman, Montana, which was great for my fly-fishing skills, but I missed Colorado and came back down to CEU for undergrad.
After undergrad I had spent a couple years in Boston, trying to kind of figure out what I wanted to do and I was actually working for a large investment bank out there and I knew I had two things in mind. I wanted to get back to Colorado and I wanted to do something in the public sector, and so I came back to Colorado and I was working up with the State Capitol during the day and I was doing a master’s in Public Administration at night at CEU, and that actually got me interested in law school.
And so I decided to apply up to the law school in Boulder and as I graduated from my master’s program started up in Boulder and then spent three years there and was trying to kind of figure out what kind of law I wanted to practice. I knew I wanted it to have some sort of public component. I was very interested in public policy and public administration. So after graduation I clerked for a year on the Colorado Supreme Court for now Chief Justice Coats who’s been a great mentor of mine, but then was kind of leaning towards actually prosecution, was interested in the Denver DA’s office. They weren’t hiring at the time and so I kind of went into one of my other areas of interest which was Water Law.
As your listeners may not know across the country, Water Law is a very important thing, not only in the Western United States but particularly in Colorado and we have — really it’s kind of a unique Colorado thing because it’s common law-based primarily and so Water Law in Colorado is a very Colorado thing and so it was a fun area to kind of practice in and I did that for a couple years and decided that although it was fun it was a little bit narrow and so I went to a firm in Denver that did a lot of, what I call public or political law, which is everything from constitutional issues, to campaign finance law, to administrative law, and so I was doing that kind of litigating those issues when another mentor of mine John Suthers who had been U.S. attorney in Colorado at that time, was appointed by the Governor of Colorado to fill the vacancy that had been created when Ken Salazar our then Attorney General became U.S. Senator.
And so, when John Suthers was appointed to be the Attorney General of Colorado, he asked if I’d come over and help him run that office, and so I left private practice and went to the Attorney General’s office as his Deputy and I did that for about three years. It was a great experience being involved in all the kind of high-level important issues, legal issues that were coming up at the time in Colorado and working with two different governors, Governor Owens and then Governor Ritter.
It was a really fun experience and was kind of enjoying that and then one day the founder of a law firm here in Denver which is kind of a regional law firm Brownstein Hyatt called Steve Farber called and told me they were looking for somebody to kind of fill a niche that was sort of fit my practice and asked if I would be interested in coming over to the firm and I talked to them and wound up going over to the law firm where for about ten years my practice was, again, what I call kind of a public law practice, it’s kind of a — it’s a sort of a generic sounding name.
So it doesn’t say, it’s not very descriptive but it’s sort of everything again from constitutional, to administrative, to campaign finance, to internal investigation, all those kind of things, and so did that for about eleven years and was a partner over there and I had kind of assumed I would stay there and then when President Trump won the election and people started talking in the legal community in Denver about who would be the next U.S. Attorney, people started asking me about it. Frankly I hadn’t been really thinking about it and I started talking to people whose opinion I valued and who had been mentors of mine and said, do you think I should be interested in this job? And they said if you think you have the opportunity then you definitely should because it’s a great opportunity.
And so I thought about it more-and-more and eventually he kind of threw my name in the ring for the job and things worked out well and so here I am. So it’s been — it’ll be a year in about three weeks that I started this job.
Johnnie Nguyen: Awesome. Well, a lot of Coloradans are very glad you’re here, especially at the University of Colorado Law Community they spoke very highly of you, so more reason to be excited to be here.
So earlier you touch in on a lot about your work in the public and private sector, and right now a lot of law students across the country are on the fence of where they want to enter, or they want to enter both in some capacity, they are a little confused there.
Right now in law school, student debt is a huge issue right now; however, a lot of students go to a law school with this dying passion to serve the public. What would your advice be to law students who are on the fence right now between the public and the private sector?
Jason Dunn: I would say a couple things. Number one I would say, it’s hard to be good at a job you don’t love. So if you go into a job simply to make sure you can pay off your student loans, I don’t think you’re going to be very good at it. Now I understand the financial realities people have and sometimes you have to make those choices.
I’ve known plenty of people I actually clerked on the Colorado Supreme Court with a woman who was a graduate of Harvard Law School and at that time graduated with, I can’t remember the exact number, but I want to say it was like $180,000 worth of debt from law school which today maybe isn’t as much as some other people have, but she clerked for a year and then was going to a big law firm for financial reasons when she actually wanted to do something in public service and she was actually going to be featured on a episode of Oprah, because Oprah was doing a show on young people who were having to take jobs that didn’t necessarily wasn’t their first choice because of student loan debt, and this was now — I have to do the math on when I graduated but as close to 20 years ago when I was clerking and so I think people get in those financial realities but there’s nothing like public service, the reward obviously is the work itself and it’s a lot easier to work hard at something when you’re enjoying it as my father-in-law who’s an Italian immigrant often says, it’s not a job if you love what you’re doing, and it’s just something you enjoy doing and contributing. So I’ve loved my chance to be in the public service whether it was this — at the state level with the AG’s office or here.
I mean, the advice I give to young, they’re either practicing lawyers or law students is to — I think there are a couple of things that they’re really at least for me and I think for other people lend towards a successful career and number one is finding good mentors. I’ve been really lucky and fortunate in my career to be able to have great mentors whether it was professors in law school up at the University of Colorado, whether it was people I worked for right after law school, lawyers, partners at firms who would take the time to show me how to do things the right way and to talk about how to practice law and not only the nuts and bolts of practicing but how you carry yourself, how you deal with opposing counsel, how you deal with the court? And I think the only way to become a good lawyer is to have good mentors and the other thing is important in that — in mentorship is that wherever I think young people wind up they have to find somebody in the organizations who’s willing to be their champion.
You have to find somebody who will say, I’m going to mentor you and if you do great work I will help your career advance and they will go to bat for you with their superiors, they will make sure you get in a position to be noticed within the organization and recognize for the quality of work you’re doing. It starts with the quality work but once you’re doing the quality work, it makes a huge difference if you have somebody who’s willing to champion your cause within the organization.
And the third thing I would say is lean in, that’s usually a phrase that’s used in another context but I would use it more universally and say it’s — I encourage everybody to put themselves in difficult situations, take on more than they’re sure they can handle, not just in terms of workload but types of cases.
I remember the first time I wound up in a trial, I thought, what did I get myself into, I took on a big case and I wasn’t sure I was actually qualified to be doing it, but it worked out fine, but I was very nervous and I encouraged people just to push themselves. Maybe what they think is a little bit beyond their boundaries because I think it’s a great way to learn, it’s a great way to just get experience.
Johnnie Nguyen: It’s great. You mentioned a law and put a lot of emphasis on the importance of mentors. What was some of the biggest advice that changed your life in your career that came from a mentor of yours?
Jason Dunn: Yeah, I mean, John — like I said John Suthers who was the U.S. attorney and then the Attorney General of Colorado and now is the Mayor of Colorado Springs, his home where he wanted to go I think sort of, served at the end of his career.
He always carried himself with integrity, and class, and tried to be thoughtful and educated as he made decisions both as a lawyer and as a manager, very even-tempered. One of the things that I remember the advice he said that as a public official in a legal position, he said one of the great things about my job versus other public officials is that I get to hide behind the law.
So when you’re getting pressure to come out a certain way on a case or on a decision as a legal manager, it sure makes it a lot easier to say, sorry, I’d love to help you, but the law is the law and when you can fall back on the law then it makes — it makes some of those difficult decisions a lot easier, but I think it was advised about how to deal with opposing counsel and that — or just others in the legal community that you’re — it’s so difficult to build a great reputation but it’s very easy to ruin it, and one mistake, one blow up in opposing counsel or blow up at court or showing up in court one time unprepared can have damaging effect to a person’s career and reputation. So I think from him I took that, and from others such as Justice Coats who I clerked for was just to do quality legal work to put in the time to do things the right way, to really work at particularly legal writing.
Some people probably do it better than I do, but for me it was always a chore to write well, but it took just rewriting, and rewriting, and drafts and putting it down for a while and coming back to it and just working hard at really creating a good work product.
Johnnie Nguyen: And I’m glad you hit on the issue of making a mistake and how might that affect your career, but just as humans even though we’re going to be lawyers, we’re still definitely going to make mistakes, no doubt, and so I was wondering if you had opened because a lot of students I think would really appreciate hearing this from you. If you ever made a mistake when you were in law school or earlier on in your career, that really reflected and resonated with you that and how you came to stand back up after that mistake and what lessons you took out of it?
Jason Dunn: Yeah, that’s a great question. I can think about one situation where I was the Deputy Attorney General, I just come in with the Attorney General. I was only about a fifth or sixth year practicing lawyer at the time and we had a case, it was actually Water Law case down in the San Luis Valley of Colorado which people from not from Colorado is a couple hundred miles from Denver and it’s a pretty rural part of the State but a big water law case that was going on, it was actually in court for like a — I think a four-week trial and our lawyers in our office in the Attorney General’s office were representing the State on that case and the lawyers on the other side were actually lawyers from my old firm and they were all down there staying at some rundown motel, that both sides were staying in in this small town in the middle of nowhere doing this trial day-to-day and they were having some challenges and the lawyers from the other side called me and said, hey, we’re having trouble with your lawyers on this issue and would you be willing to help and to essentially intervene and drive the outcome they were kind of hoping for.
I viewed that — I wasn’t trying to think of it in a way to help out my old colleagues or do some favor for them but rather I viewed myself as trying to resolve a situation that seemed intractable between the two sides to help the case move forward and help them reach resolution and so I sort of talked to the Attorney General and I reached out to the lawyers and I think it bristled the lawyers who were on the line fighting the trial and they viewed it as perhaps me undermining their case and that was not my intention at all, and so we also had outside counsel on that case who was helping a longtime Water Law expert in the State.
And so I thought about it and I thought they were probably right and I probably should have just stayed out of it, and so I had to call both our outside counsel who was a well-established lawyer in town as well as the line attorneys in our office and explain to them that I meant no ill intention and that I was trying to help them move the case forward in the best way for all the parties and that it probably – it would have been best for me.
So I think the lesson in that was, A, you have to kind of remember who your client is, but B, was that if you make a mistake just to kind of own up to it and be candid about it and a lot of times when you have someone who’s upset about something you might have done by sort of owning up and talking to them and apologizing it seems to de-escalate a situation a long way and it worked out for the best in the long run, but rather than sort of trying to explain it or justify it, it was simply to say, I’m sorry, I apologize for getting in the middle of your case and it won’t happen again.
Johnnie Nguyen: Yeah, thank you for sharing that with us. I think it’s an important lesson for all of us as law students and young lawyers to really get that down. If you make a mistake just own it and then just move forward, that’s an important piece of it.
To those mistakes — I’m speaking from my own experience, I’ve made a lot of mistakes now just early, just finishing one year of law school. I could have a tendency to go down this kind of dark spiral of just sitting on that mistake for a while and getting really sad about it and it hinders on my education or my ability to grow up because you sit on that — just beating yourself up so much and so I was wondering if you could share advice for law students who assume most of us have gone to that little dark spot in our life or during our career and how did you get yourself out of it and how did you move forward?
Jason Dunn: Yeah, I think we’ve all been there and I think one of the important things that I’ve learned is that time makes a huge difference on how you view mistakes and problems and where I’ve sort of told myself and I try to tell other people when something happens, a big mistake and they are very upset about something, I’ve tried to sell myself. This will look very different a month from now, this will look very different six months from now, I try not to beat yourself up too much in the immediate, it’s going to — you’re going to if you make a mistake but allow yourself to also realize with time comes perspective and things may not be as bad as they seem if you just give it a little time to get in the rearview mirror.
Johnnie Nguyen: That’s a really important topic for me because the ABA Law Student Division, a big priority that we unanimously decided on was addressing mental health and wellness issues with law students and young lawyers and so right now we’re working with the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs for a national fundraising effort, a national outreach effort to really raise awareness about the mental health issues that sit in the legal profession. What do you do to — when you’re tired or when you are stressed out or when you have those moments we’re here just, you just really need to get away from the law, what do you do?
Jason Dunn: Yeah. Well, I live in Colorado, right? So I do a lot of outdoor stuff. I mountain-bike, I fly fish, I ski, I golf, so there’s plenty of distractions here in Colorado, maybe too many but I have a great wife and two kids who love to do all those activities too, so I certainly try and make sure I get away from work and put things down and try and do some of those fun things just to kind of decompress a little bit.
Johnnie Nguyen: Awesome, that’s great. So I have one last and the final most important question for you. If you die today, reincarnated into any animal, what animal would you hope to be and why?
Jason Dunn: That’s a great question. It reminds me of the first job interview I had when it was the summer right after I graduated college and I was trying to kill some time before I went actually on a graduate — to a graduate course over in London for a month, late in the summer and so I had to find a job for the summer and I interviewed to be a waiter in a restaurant in a hotel and the manager of the hotel was my last interview and he said, if you could be any animal in the world what would you be and because I had a Golden Retriever dog at the time I said, Golden Retriever. I’ve always regretted that answer because it’s just pretty lame, the right to say “Golden Retriever”. So I won’t answer it with Golden Retriever.
Johnnie Nguyen: It’s your redemption point, right?
Jason Dunn: That’s right. Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a — maybe it’s a bald eagle or something like that because they can — they get an opportunity to actually see some cool stuff and fly around right in the best parts, when they go fit, they get to go for fly fishing, right? So they get to dive in the river. I just came off the river in the last two days so – and I saw a little bit of that, so I thought that would be a pretty cool life, so, maybe that’s the answer.
Johnnie Nguyen: Your assistant before this interview asked, what the fun question was going to be at the end.
Jason Dunn: And that was it.
Johnnie Nguyen: I shared it with her and she said, he’s going to say something lame like a bald eagle.
Jason Dunn: Did she say that? Yeah, it’s probably not much better. I don’t know what I would say. I have a new puppy at home too who’s a Golden Doodle, and he is destroying a lot of things and chewing on us constantly, so he’s ruined me to say “Golden Retriever” right now.
Johnnie Nguyen: Well, Mr. Dunn, I really appreciate your time. It’s certainly been a pleasure and real joy for me and a good distraction from my study so I was happy about that.
Well, to our audience members, I hope you enjoyed this episode of the ABA Law Student Podcast.
I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on iTunes, Google Podcast or your favorite podcasting app. You can also reach out to us on Facebook @abaforlawstudents and @abalsd on Twitter.
Again, I am Johnnie Nguyen. Thank you for tuning in and have a great day.
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