From the Seat of Power: Jami Westerhold
By Jamie Bence • March 31, 2011•Politics and Government
Jami Westerhold has wanted to do environmental work since she was in high school. A self-described “notorious planner,” she decided she would attend Vermont Law while she was still a high school student in Wyoming. Jami learned that most of Vermont Law's students are from out of state originally, but attend undergrad in Vermont. Thus, she chose Green Mountain College for her bachelor's, an environmentally-focused liberal arts school, where she majored in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Public Advocacy. Jami has worked for numerous environmental organizations, including the Vermont Natural Resources Board, regional and local planning commissions, and the Natural Resource Defense Council in New York City.
What factors led you to the Hill? Did you always want to work for Congress or was there an opportunity to pursue an area of the law that interested you? When I went to law school, I knew I wanted to do policy or legislative work. I never planned on being a litigator. I had done very well with my litigation work in school, but like many people, I hit a crossroad in law school, where I had to choose among policy, legislative, or litigation work It is hard to move between the litigation and policy/legislative worlds. It is easier to move from litigation to policy/legislative arena. Once you graduate from law school, you usually have to make that decision fairly quickly into your professional career. .
When I graduated from Vermont Law, I did not have a job right away, but I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. It's very hard right out of school to get a great policy job, but I narrowed my search to Denver, DC and New York. My partner, who I met in law school, had a job in DC, so I decided to move down and work from there. She is the exception to the rule. She is a litigator and works for a big firm, where there is also a public policy group, so she does both policy work and litigation. She's a rare example.
I interned for Senator Barrasso from my home state of Wyoming. I loved the staff, and still think he is a great person. It was, however, a completely different realm of politics for me. We weren't in line politically, but the Senator would always personally debate the issues with me, which was wonderful. I became a Staff Assistant, and eventually they offered me another promotion. However, I was afraid I was working myself out of the sort of job I really wanted, and decided to set my own end date.
I was only unemployed for a few weeks. I did document review, which was great money but boring. Then I got a job in Senator Sanders' office. While working in Senator Barrasso’s office, which was next door to Senator Sanders’ office, Senator Sanders would come in and give me a hard time. It became a sort of banter. I had originally interviewed for a job in that office for which I now realize I was under qualified. Then they had another opening, and I emailed him to get the interview. They ended up altering the position a little bit for my skill set.
What exactly does your current job entail? I am a person in the middle of two jobs. I do correspondence, writing about environmental, energy, LGBT issues, and animal issues with our constituents and interest groups. I have helped write speeches, floor statements, questions and opening statements for committee hearings. I also do the research for pieces of legislation dealing with LGBT issues and animal issues. I assist with a portion of the environmental and energy portfolio working with the aide who heads that policy area, and I'm learning a lot. I also find bills to co-sponsor in the energy and environmental area.
Do you feel that your job affords good work/life balance? Have you had a chance to enjoy living in Washington, DC? My job is actually very flexible. What’s nice about the Congress in general is that when we go into recess there are a lot less things going on since the members of Congress are back in their home states. As a result, there are less committee hearings and no floor action. It's never slow per se, but we get to wear jeans, people bring their pets to work, things of that nature. That creates a quality of life that is very rare. But it has its ebbs and flows.
My day is basically from 9am to 6pm, sometimes later or earlier if I need to get things done. For legislative issues, I sometimes come in on a Saturday. For example, with Don't Ask Don't Tell, we were here on a Saturday. But there is a lot of flexibility for staff, and time to enjoy D.C. That's one of the benefits of the job.
What do you find most rewarding and challenging about your job? The most rewarding part is watching a bill be passed, watching your work become law. The most challenging part is watching a bill die, and get re-introduced every two years. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act is a great example of this; it has been on the table for 16 years. That's very challenging. Then you get something like DADT, where the repeal was introduced and died at least 3 times, but then we got it. That's challenging but rewarding.
What surprised you about working on the Hill? Was there anything that was outside of what you expected? I would say that I'm pretty surprised of how much of a “boys club” it still is in the Senate. I am not sure this is as true on the House side. I think that's especially interesting considering we have an arguably progressive Democratic majority and many upper level staffers are white men. I couldn't say that's true in every office, but it is surprising how many times I am the only woman on the elevator. It's a slow evolution and that's not what I expected at all.
Sometimes it strikes me when I hear about how there are now more women graduating from law school, getting their master's, etc. The statistics show that in the work force women are slowly evening out with men regarding holding higher degrees, but I don't think the jobs here are moving at that rate. There are only 17 women in the Senate. Some of these women who are elected will have women chiefs of staff, legislative directors and state directors. So maybe with more women being elected, more women's jobs would be created.
Where do you see yourself going next? Would you like to stay in the federal government or move into the nonprofit or private sector? I would like to stay with environmental legislative or policy work. I would stay on the Hill if I could focus solely on environmental and energy legislative work. If not, then working with nonprofits or other government agencies would be interesting. I could see myself as the in-between person, like the congressional liaison for a nonprofit. Someone who goes to the Hill and meet with people because now I know what it looks like from the inside. Another government agency or NGO would be great too. I probably would not go to the private sector. Maybe an environmental lobbying group or something that I would really support, but I really want to know that what I'm doing is environmental policy that I actually believe in.
What advice would you have to law students and lawyers who would like to work on the Hill in a capacity like yours? Looking back, were there any steps that you took which were important to getting this job? I would say if you just want to do policy work in general, volunteer for organizations while you're in school. In my realm, I would suggest volunteering for Greenpeace. For the Hill, get politically involved in general. Show an interest in politics. Try to meet staff prior to graduating. Go to the events in their district, and meet the staff, because they make the hiring decisions. They'll remember your name- that's their job.
Intern early. If you really think you want to be on the Hill, don't be afraid to take an internship even if you've graduated. You have to have it on your resume. Also, a lot of offices hire their interns.
Work on campaigns, for people on the House side especially. A lot of people who work on campaigns get hired. You can do it part time, get some experience, if you want to you can really get involved. What's great about campaigns especially for women, is that they need the best of the best. It's not going to be about how you know- they don't have time to waste, they need you because you are working hard and you're good. I worked campaigns where, within a matter of days, I had a much bigger role. It's a good place to show your worth, and get people to see, recognize, and utilize it.
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