Upon graduation from Columbia Law, the vast majority of Breuer’s classmates planned to work at big firms or take a federal clerkship. Breuer, however, had strong feelings about his first job: “I had a feeling that it was important I loved my first job, and I had a gut feeling I’d be good in the courtroom.” So, he joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s office where he worked under legendary D.A. Robert Morgenthau and alongside current D.A. Cy Vance.
As an Assistant District Attorney, Breuer prosecuted gang violence, robberies, and white-collar crime, and he credits the trial experience he gained at the D.A.’s office with helping set him apart during the rest of his career. Even those following traditional paths need to have a story to set themselves apart, he urged, and taking on assignments that develop specific skills is an important part of that story, no matter what path a lawyer follows.
After four years at the D.A.’s office, Breuer moved to Washington D.C. where he joined Covington & Burling as an associate. Here, his trial experience helped him land high profile and unique cases including that of Justin Elzie, the first marine discharged under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Elzie—a former marine-of-the-year—came out on network TV shortly after President Clinton took office. Predictably, the Marines sent him his discharge papers, but after a four-year court case, Breuer won Elzie his pension.
Breuer reports that, ironically, suing the U.S. Government helped him land his first federal job, as special counsel to President Clinton. In this role, he defended Clinton in investigations over fundraising and Monica Lewinsky and represented him at his impeachment hearing. Upon his return to Covington & Burling, he ran the firm’s white-collar practice and defended such clients former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, baseball player Roger Clemens, and former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit.
In 2009, President Obama appointed Breuer Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. At DOJ, he oversaw over 600 attorneys prosecuting some of the nation’s most violent and complex crimes. He helped revolutionize the way the U.S. handles corruption both domestically and internationally, and under his tenure, DOJ created the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section to prosecute war criminals and crimes against humanity. Breuer recently returned to Covington & Burling (he thinks as the only person to do so three times) and was appointed the firm’s Vice Chair.
Breuer emphasized to students the value of both public and private sector experiences—and the benefit of using skills gained in one sector to further a career in the other.
Asked about students graduating today who wanted to follow a similar path, Breuer stressed that there’s no one path to success and happiness: “If you go into the DOJ honors program, you can have a spectacular career. If you live in a community where US Attorney is willing to hire you after a clerkship, you can have a spectacular career. You can go from District Attorney’s office and have a spectacular career. There’s also the model that you clerk, you go to a firm, you go to the US Attorney’s office, you go back to firm, and one day your buddy calls you up and asks you to head up a division at Justice. That’s the most traditional way, the most common way, and it’s the most risk-averse way, but many people have the same plan.”
In demanding careers such as those in the legal profession, it is critical to enjoy your work. He encouraged students, whatever path they choose, to work hard at something they enjoy because that, in and of itself, is the path to success and happiness.