Jamie Bence

From the Seat of Power: Nicole Heiser

Nicole Heiser is an attorney practicing employment law in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of the General Counsel, General Law Division. Nicole graduated from the University of California, San Diego in 1999 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.  She attended the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law. She is a member of the bar in California and Maryland.  Following graduation, Nicole joined the Department of Justice Honors Program as an Honors Attorney for the Federal Bureau of Prisons practicing employment and labor litigation. Nicole has been in her present position with the Department of Homeland Security since April of 2007.

How did you come to work for the Department of Homeland Security? What earlier experiences led you to your current position? Did you always want to work for the federal government or was there an opportunity to pursue an area of law that interested you? I was looking for a new challenge and DHS was still in its formative stages.  A former law school classmate and friend who was working in the DHS Office of General Counsel put me in contact with the people who were hiring for my current position.  After speaking with some of the DHS attorneys and learning about the type of work opportunities at DHS, I decided to submit my résumé for consideration.  I was drawn to DHS because I liked the idea that, given the broad mission and the newness of the agency, I could potentially be involved in helping to develop and work on new initiatives, programs, and policies.  I think one of the things in my earlier experiences that also led me to DHS was the fact that I was a law student in Washington during the attacks on September 11.  My classmates and I watched as the entire world changed around us and I was intrigued at the possibility of being able to help in the effort to prevent similar attacks in the future, if even from a very distant and indirect manner.

I came to law school in Washington because I wanted to work for the federal government.  There were times during law school when I considered doing something else, but I am very pleased that I ultimately decided to pursue a career as a federal employee.

How does your current position at the Department of Homeland Security compare with your previous experience at the Department of Justice? What do you think is especially challenging and/or rewarding about this job?  Previously at DOJ and currently at DHS, I represent the agency before administrative tribunals in various employment law cases.  With those job responsibilities come inherent similarities – research, writing, discovery, administrative hearings, direct interaction with clients are a few.  At DHS, I also work on a lot of non-litigation related matters to include review of policies and draft legislation and interaction with the DHS components on a number of different issues, for example Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration.  At DOJ, I was with a bureau and at DHS, I am at the headquarters level, which presents a different set of challenges.  For example, many of the situations into which our office becomes involved are high profile and may generate outside interest from Congress and/or the press.  I typically welcome those types of challenges.  Other challenges I have experienced at DHS include the growing pains an agency of this size and breadth simply cannot avoid.  In the legal world this often means trying to assist your clients in achieving something that perhaps no other federal agency has ever had to do in a manner that is consistent with the law and mindful of our duty as stewards of the tax payers.  Much of what is rewarding about this job comes from the challenges – no day is ever the same and while the employment lawyers may not have a direct impact on keeping America safe, I like to think that in some way we play a small part in assisting others in achieving that goal.

Do you feel that your job affords good work/life balance? Do you feel that you have time and energy to pursue your obligations and interests outside of work? The job is demanding, but I am fortunate enough to have leadership that is supportive of offering employees flexibility. I have two young children and I commute into DC from Baltimore city, each of which presents their own unique demands.  However, I am permitted to work flexible hours and I also telework up to two days per week.  There are times when I have to do work in the evenings or on weekends, but this is not uncommon in the practice of law generally and, for me, it is worth the added benefits that both my flexible hours and teleworking offer to me and my family.  I have started to get back into the swing of getting involved in interests outside of work.  I participate in a book club and will be coaching my three-year old son’s soccer team this fall. 

What advice would you give to law students and lawyers who would like to work in a capacity like yours? Looking back, were there any steps that you took which were important to getting this job?  If you are a law student who is interested in working for the federal government, I would highly recommend trying to find an internship with a federal agency, particularly if you are in the Washington, DC area or can travel to DC for a summer internship.  Not only will these types of opportunities provide you with some background on what it is like to work for the federal government as a lawyer, you will gain contacts at the agency which will prove invaluable later in your career. 

While in law school, I participated in several paid and unpaid internships with the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.  Looking back, I think these experiences put me at an advantage for selection into the DOJ Honors Program because they showed my level of interest in and commitment to the federal government. 

If you are a current practicing attorney who is interested in transitioning your practice to the federal government, I would recommend ensuring that your résumé highlights the type of experience you have that would translate well to practice in the federal sector and how your past experiences have paved the way for a job in the federal sector.

Where do you see yourself in the future? At this point in my life and career, I cannot imagine that I will leave federal sector practice.  I am not opposed to branching out in to other practice areas outside of employment law.  I am also interested in pursuing leadership positions at some point in my career, perhaps once my children are a little older.  One particular interest I have as a long-term goal is to work in a non-legal capacity, either in a management or policy position.  The idea of using my legal skills in that type of capacity sounds interesting and challenging to me. 

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