Emma Simson: Legal Policy

Emma Simson, Class of ‘03, is a lawyer in the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia. Ted Jou ‘99 recently spoke with her about her legal career and her memories of high school.

Can you tell me generally about your job? What is it you do? 

I currently serve as Senior Counsel to the Attorney General for the District of Columbia. In that role, my principal responsibility is to advise on legal and policy issues, as well as some issues related to agency operations.

What is the DC Attorney General?

The DC Attorney General is the chief legal officer for the District of Columbia. The Office of the Attorney General has 10 divisions with about 700 employees. Our divisions handle a very wide range of legal matters. For example, our Civil Litigation Division defends the District when it's sued and when its laws and policies are challenged. The Office of Solicitor General handles appellate matters that touch on both local and national issues. Our Public Advocacy Division files affirmative cases in areas like consumer protection, antitrust, workers’ rights, and environmental protection. And that’s just three of our divisions. So we handle a very wide range of matters. 

And what is your role specifically? Do you go to court? Are you supervising other attorneys? Working on policy?

I don't litigate any cases and I don't go to court in my current role. I advise on legal and policy issues that arise from six of the divisions. Sometimes that involves conversations around the cases we might be defending or that we plan to bring. Sometimes that involves policy work with other District agencies or with the DC Council. So for instance, I have done certain work on trying to advance legislation through the DC council that our office is in support of. 

What is something that you’ve worked on recently that you can share?

You may be familiar with the fact that states and the District have reached a number of landmark agreements with companies that were involved in fueling the opioid epidemic in the US. The states and the District are going to receive a good amount of money over the next 18 years to help abate the opioid crisis. Recently, I have worked with the DC Council to pass legislation addressing how the District will spend those funds. The legislation passed by the Council also set up an Office of Opioid Abatement and an Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission. With the legislation now passed, I have also done some recent work related to implementation and making sure that we, as the District, stay in compliance with the settlement agreements and with the terms of the legislation. 

How is it that you became a lawyer? Is this something that you imagined you'd be doing when you were back in high school?

I actually wasn't particularly interested in becoming a lawyer when I was in high school or in college. It was really only after college that I started to think about it, although once I decided to go to law school, my parents said that they had been expecting this since I was very young. 

Part of why I went to law school was my strong interest in working on state and local policy. I started to think that a law degree would be a good background for working on policy issues. When I went to law school, I went with an intent to work on state and local policy, and really never intended to be involved in litigation. And then, for my first nine years out of law school, I was in much more litigation-focused jobs than I had anticipated. One of the things I enjoy about my current role is that it enables me to have some involvement in litigation and also in local policy work.

Was there anything from your high school experience that you feel like has helped you in your career or influenced you?

I think the Magnet made me really interested in how data and research can help drive good policymaking. For my senior research project, I worked for a professor at the University of Maryland on social science research projects. And I actually continued that work for several more years when I was an undergrad. As a result of those experiences, I think I've always come at policy questions from the perspective of: Is there data? And is there high-quality research that can help us make good decisions? Sometimes, what seems like a good idea, if you actually look at the research and data, there’s no effect or there are unintended consequences–I think Scared Straight programs are one of the classic examples of that. So I think that that largely stems from being in the Magnet and having a strong focus on research.

I also have an incredible group of friends from the Magnet Program and feel incredibly lucky for the friendships I developed while I was at Blair. They now have a variety of careers, but they all have interesting perspectives that they bring to bear on issues, and I always enjoy that I've had these long-lasting friendships 20 years after we graduated. 

And I also feel incredibly lucky about the teachers that I had and the quality of teaching and learning. I always think back to so many of the projects that we did in the Magnet, and I do think that's helpful now in my career, where a lot of my job is working with large groups to get things done. And I don't know that everybody gets those opportunities to work on really big, long term group projects in high school. 

After graduating from the University of Maryland, you actually became a high school teacher for a few years. What was that experience like?

So I taught high school social studies and found that I really loved teaching. I also really loved working with high school students–I think that they are old enough that they're starting to think about their place in the world, and it can just be really enriching to spend time with high school students and see what's driving their thinking and what's driving their interests.

It was actually while I was teaching that I started to think about law school, and it was partly teaching about legal cases. And my students would say, “Miss Simson, you really should go to law school.” And I think it was partially through that experience, actually, that I really started to give law school more consideration. 

You went to law school at Yale, and then what were your first jobs as a lawyer?

So my first job out of law school, I was a fellow at a nonprofit called the Campaign Legal Center, and while I was there, I mostly focused on voting rights litigation. And then over the next few years, I had several jobs working as a law clerk for various judges.

What is a law clerk?

It often depends on the judge, but law clerks typically help judges with legal research, preparing bench memos in advance of oral arguments in a case, and drafting opinions and orders. Sometimes law clerks also help with other activities like giving speeches. A big part of the job, though, is to talk through thorny issues in a case with your judge and try to help research the information that the judge needs to make a decision in a case.

You had the opportunity to clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court–what was that experience like?

I am extremely thankful to have had the opportunity, and it was fascinating to have an inside look at an institution like the Supreme Court.  It was also incredible to work closely with Justice Ginsburg–to get voicemails at 3 AM with her edits on a draft opinion or thoughts on a case that she was preparing. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to see her up close in action. She had an amazing memory for things–she would sometimes say something like there's a quote in a book, and she gives you the title and she gives you the rough quote. It was just a really unique, interesting, fascinating and fun experience to see how she thought through cases, how she thought about issues, and to be part of those conversations. It was also a unique time because at that point, she had become quite a phenomenon as the “Notorious RBG.” It was very funny to see pictures of my boss on mugs or people’s shirts or bags.

One of my favorite memories was when we went with her to watch an early screening of a Hollywood movie about her life called “On the Basis of Sex” and got to debrief afterward with her–that was a really memorable experience.