How I Got My Job: Joan Watt, Assistant Director/Chief of the Appellate Division for Salt Lake Legal Defender Association (LDA)

What do you do?  I am the Assistant Director/Chief of the Appellate Division for Salt Lake Legal Defender Association (LDA). LDA represents indigent, court-appointed criminal defendants charged with state crimes in Salt Lake County. Our office has approximately 75 lawyers divided among misdemeanor, felony trial, and appellate divisions. I supervise all appellate attorneys and law clerks. I also carry an appellate caseload, advise trial attorneys who are preparing motions or cases for trial, and have office-wide administrative responsibilities.

Where are you from and why did you go to law school?  I am from California, and attended law school at the University of California, Davis. I went to law school because I wanted to further my education and academic pursuits, and thought that being a lawyer would help me to do something positive to help improve the lives of others.

What kind of activities did you do in law school?  I was on Law Review and did an internship for a state court judge. I also participated in volunteer activities and clerked for a law firm.

How did you first make contact with your employer and how did you get this job? I began my legal career working as an associate for a law firm in California. After moving to Utah, I applied for an entry level misdemeanor trial attorney position by submitting a cover letter and resume. I was hired and began my career at LDA representing court-appointed clients in the trial court.

LDA did not have an appellate division when I first began working at the office. As a misdemeanor attorney, I wrote appellate briefs and enjoyed the process. When the office formed an appellate division in 1987, I “temporarily” transferred to that division with the understanding that I could return to trial work. I enjoyed taking an active role in the development of an appellate division and continue to enjoy my position.

What does your typical day involve for you/your work?  Each day is a little different because of the different responsibilities of my position. Some days, I am able to focus primarily on my appellate caseload and spend several hours researching and writing appellate briefs. I also visit clients at the jail or prison or meet with them in the office. As an appellate attorney, I prepare for and present oral argument in the Utah appellate courts and also occasionally appear in the trial court.

As the Chief of the Appellate Division, I train, supervise, and oversee the other appellate attorneys in the office. In that capacity, I spend a good deal of time reviewing court records to aid in issue identification and development, discussing possible approaches to cases, analyzing possible legal arguments, and reviewing and editing briefs. I also moot lawyers to help them prepare for arguments in the appellate courts.

I also supervise LDA law clerks and spend time meeting with lawyers who need clerk help, outlining assignments for law clerks, and assisting in focusing the legal issues that need to be researched. I help trial lawyers develop and preserve issues in the trial court. Additionally, I oversee the initial filing and docketing of appeals, review motions and memoranda being filed in the trial courts, and discuss and identify issues being raised by trial lawyers.

My position as an Assistant Director involves office wide administration. Office wide administration involves a number of responsibilities including, among other things, being involved in interviewing and hiring law clerks and attorneys.

What are the best (and worst, if you want) parts of your job?  There are many things I like about my job. Oral argument is perhaps both the best – and the worst – part of the job. Although presentation of oral arguments does not involve much time, preparation can require a significant amount of time. I enjoy the preparation, but it is also a time when stress can build. The day or evening before an oral argument can be especially stressful, but the arguments themselves are often a high point of being an appellate attorney.

Working with my clients is also one of the best parts of my job. And, I love to research and write and find the development of issues particularly rewarding.

What tips/advice do you have for job-seeking S.J.Quinney School of Law students and recent alum?  Learn about the nature of the job, the office, and the people who work there. Emphasize any strong points you have that make you a good candidate for the job. Ask relevant questions that show you are particularly interested in and suited for the specific job. Don’t exaggerate or overdo your qualifications or unduly flatter your interviewer. Be as natural as you can when interviewing.