From the Department of English to the Department of Justice
Alumni Spotlight on Kathleen Cooperstein ‘09
October 19, 2022
It might seem like Kathleen Cooperstein’s work as a litigator for the Department of Justice doesn’t relate to her time at Virginia Tech, where her interests varied and included a research project on ancient pagan rituals. But the skills she developed as an English major prevail in her work today as an attorney.
Cooperstein will speak about how English paved the path for her law career on Friday, Oct. 28 during the English Career Connections conference at Virginia Tech. She will be the keynote speaker.
She attended Yale Law School after graduating from Virginia Tech in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in English and a concentration in pre-law. Earning her degree during an economic recession pushed her to continue her education immediately, rather than entering the job market. After graduating law school, Cooperstein worked as a clerk for one year with a judge in a district court.
It was during this clerkship that Cooperstein did some of her best writing and researching. She also received some of her harshest criticism. She views this one-year span as a continuation of her education, as her clerkship not only demanded rigorous reading and researching but also exposed her to trials. Cooperstein wanted to be a litigation lawyer and observing trials helped her overcome imposter syndrome and gain confidence in her own intelligence and abilities to go to trial.
After her clerkship, Cooperstein worked in private practice for almost seven years doing criminal and civil defense work at various law firms in Washington, D.C. Now, she works for the Department of Justice in the criminal fraud section, specifically with healthcare fraud.
Her daily tasks vary depending on if she is in trial or not. When in trial, she spends normal business hours in court and uses her time after hours preparing witnesses, making sure evidence is in order, and briefing legal issues that might have come up in trial that day. During these times, her job requires a lot of soft skills as she meets with prospective witnesses and navigates their anticipated testimony and concerns. Being in trial, Cooperstein said, is the most exhausting but exciting part of the job.
Whether in trial or not, Cooperstein spends a lot of time writing. As a litigation attorney, documentation is crucial, and she has to ensure that her notes are professional and accurate at all times. Whether this means she is ensuring documentation of witness statements or she is keeping a record of what investigative steps have been taken from day to day, her documentation must be maintained in the event that such information must be produced during litigation.
The writing she produces is very technical and must be highly accurate.
Beyond this documentation and note taking, Cooperstein spends a significant amount of time writing other documents, such as search warrants and indictments.
“I’ve never met a litigator who couldn’t string together a sentence on paper,” she said, reiterating how important writing skills are in her profession.
Cooperstein also discussed how important the technical writing skills she developed studying English at Virginia Tech were to her as she began her career as an attorney. This included the widely-feared Law School Admission Test. Cooperstein discussed the LSAT candidly, explaining that your score directly affects what level of law school you can attend, which affects what kind of work you will do as an attorney.
“If you go to a T-14 school, you can write your ticket and do whatever you want to do,” Cooperstein said.
These T-14 schools represent the top-14 law schools ranked by U.S. News and World Report. While she doesn’t agree with the system of standardized testing and seemingly-arbitrary school rankings, she concedes these factors are important in her field.
Despite the daunting nature of the LSAT exam, Cooperstein believes it is a test students can successfully complete.
“Every person in the Virginia Tech English Department is intelligent enough to get a really good score on the LSAT, but not if you don’t practice,” Cooperstein said. Like any other standardized test, this crucial step in an attorney’s career path is formulaic and solvable, but it requires preparation and time to succeed.
Luckily for Cooperstein and other students studying English, the skills taught in English departments help prepare students for the kinds of skills needed to succeed in taking the test, she said. Many questions on the test consist of reading and synthesizing large chunks of text before answering questions about them. Cooperstein said the skills she built as an English major helped her succeed.
With a test this important, it makes sense that Cooperstein’s biggest advice for undergraduate students aspiring to law school is to study for the LSAT.
“You want to give yourself the highest advantage from the start,” Cooperstein said. “The rank of your law school matters a lot to what kind of job you will get and you want to give yourself the best advantage right from the start.”
Achieving a good score on the LSAT is the first step in that direction.
Despite all of her success as an attorney, Cooperstein didn’t always know she wanted to be a lawyer. During her undergraduate years at Virginia Tech, Cooperstein didn’t feel like she had a lot of direction about what she wanted to do after graduation.
“I really appreciate the English department giving me the flexibility to go in whatever direction I wanted with it,” she said.
The freedom the department provided her helped her ferret out her interests. The courses offered in the pre-law concentration interested her the most, and she remains grateful for the support and flexibility it offered her as she found her way to her career path.
Written by Hannah Ballowe, a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English Program