The writing and analysis skills I developed have served me very well.”
A look at some of Jill Pfenning's achievements (so far) reveals intellectual drive, sustained curiosity, and a commitment to service. Before coming to VLS, Pfenning, who was born in Korea and adopted to Vermont, returned to Korea to teach English at a girls' school. "It was a life-changing experience," she says of exploring that culture. "I had always questioned how much of who I am is nature or nurture. I discovered that I have characteristics not traceable to my upbringing in Vermont; at the same time, I'm pretty American, and different in many ways from native Koreans." She also taught in Vermont-this time, high school math. "It's a direct-service kind of challenge," she says of teaching, and feels it was good training for working with her clients in the pro bono cases she often handles as an associate at the Washington, D.C. firm of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher.
Pfenning considers Gibson Dunn a good fit for someone who's motivated, wants experience in different areas of the law, and values the chance to do pro bono work. "You don't have to commit to a particular practice area," she says of the firm's approach to new associates. "Nobody assigns you work; you have to be proactive and seek out work that interests you. There's a lot of latitude and the freedom to explore, at least initially. But," she adds, "you do have to learn to manage your own workload well." (Pfenning managed her VLS workload well enough to earn a Dean's Scholarship, graduate first in her class, and stay in shape with a lot of running.) So far at Gibson Dunn, she's worked on securities fraud, is slated to take on a corporate project, and has worked on stimulating pro bono cases in family and criminal law. The firm, which argues many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, is firmly committed to pro bono work, she says. Another benefit: "The brain power here is pretty staggering," she says, "and people are willing to mentor you."
Mentors have played a big role in Pfenning's legal training. At VLS she got a thorough grounding in appellate advocacy by taking Professor Tracy Bach's class and subsequently working as one of her teaching assistants. "It gave me the opportunity to live through another appellate advocacy class," she remembers. She worked with Professor Jackie Gardina on immigration law issues, and her research into the history and practice of what she calls "an area of the law with its own set of rules" culminated in an article on federal court review of agency immigration decisions, published in the Vermont Law Review. Another mentor was Judge Peter W. Hall of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, for whom Pfenning clerked after graduating.
"Judge Hall was amazing to work for-a great role model," she says. That clerkship also dovetailed well with her VLS appellate experience: "Generally, appellate litigation and clerkships are very academic pursuits. The writing and analysis skills I developed have served me very well," she says.
Since the 2nd Circuit includes New York and Connecticut, Pfenning also saw her share of immigration cases-and saw disparities in the quality of lawyering clients had received. "We clerks would often find meritorious issues that weren't raised by the immigration or criminal lawyer trying to do a volume business. On the other hand, when a case would be argued by pro bono counsel from law firms, they could bring to bear a different level of skill and, obviously, greater resources."
Being a new associate at a large firm calls for long hours and demanding work, but Pfenning can call on Vermont connections in her new city when it's time to kick back. "Two of my really good friends from VLS are at Beveridge and Diamond, doing the kind of work I'm doing. Another is at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission," she notes. And although she can no longer run along the White River to unwind, she's avidly exploring the parks and trails Georgetown has to offer.