Layth Elhassani had just been hired as the legislative director for newly appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) – only the second person on staff – when the AIG financial crisis hit in 2008.
There was no policy team, nobody had much experience in the banking industry, but there was a lot of pressure to figure out what happened to the company and what role Bennet and the Senate banking committee would play in addressing the crisis.
Elhassani, 37, says that’s what separates working on Capitol Hill from attorney jobs at big firms, where there’s time to do all the research you need and every last detail must be perfect. On the Hill, Elhassani says, sometimes you just have to go with what you’ve got at the moment.
“That’s one of the hardest things, you have to let go of it,” Elhassani said. “Things are very different here, the pace is much faster, the expectation is you’re doing the best you can, you just have to finish the day the best you can.”
This month, Elhassani started a new job working as a Special Assistant to the President, acting as a liaison between the White House and the Senate, where he spent the last nine years as a staffer. He says his new job fills him with a “rush of patriotism,” and is more fulfilling than the telecom regulatory practice he left behind in Raleigh, N.C.
“It’s clear it’s meaningful work,” Elhassani said. “I would have guessed going into law school that I would end up doing some sort of public interest work.”
But at Duke Law School he says he got caught up in the draw to big firms, and big salaries, and soon he clerked for four law firms and took a job with Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein in Raleigh.
After two years of the work, however, he just wasn’t happy. He sent his resume to a Washington D.C. nonprofit that had helped push through McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform and had to deal with around 85 lawsuits challenging it, including everyone from the National Rifle Association to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Elhassani took a $63,000 salary cut to take the job and move to DC, trading his private office, secretary and paralegal perks at his big firm job in North Carolina. “It was about as political a case as you could have,” Elhassani said. It was grunt work, but he was thrilled to be working on a solution to what he saw as an important issue.
His parents, naturally, thought he was crazy. And for a while, he might have agreed. Elhassani’s new coworkers at the frugal nonprofit campaign finance reform group were skeptical of the polished lawyer joining their shaggy beard-and-jeans crowd.
But Elhassani, who grew up as an outspoken liberal kid in conservative Spartanburg, S.C., was used to slowly shifting the perceptions of people who saw things differently. Before long, his new coworkers were inviting him happy hours, and had launched a nine-year career working on legislative issues on Capitol Hill.
Elhassani looked to the Hill for his next job, and says his law degree helped him not have to start at the bottom. Then-Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.), a moderate, hired him on staff, where he worked on social issues like flag burning, gun rights, gay marriage and the Iraq war.
He worked as counsel for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.); as a policy director for a nonprofit think tank organized by former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina; and as oversight counsel and legislative director for Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.).
And then in 2008, he signed on with Bennet, and built the Senator’s operations from the ground up, including making decisions about hiring, staff reviews and promotions.
Elhassani says there are great opportunities for former big law firm attorneys looking to work on more personally satisfying issues, or simply looking for a change. Those fed up with law firm life, he notes, are sometimes the best hires.
“They’re the most grateful people,” Elhassani said.
As for Elhassani’s parents? They still suggest he might find something a little more stable.
Know of a Hill attorney who would be interesting to read about? Send suggestions to Todd Ruger at firstname.lastname@example.org.