Trailblazer Series Welcomes Leigha Simonton

Law school is the best time to consider where one’s passion lies, Leigha Simonton says, and to keep an open mind about career paths and try different things, just as she learned to do as a law student and young attorney looking to find her way. You might just be surprised at what develops.

The Trailblazer Speaker Series launched its 2024 season on January 18th with yet another nationally recognized attorney at the height of their legal career to speak to SMU Dedman School of Law students about the meaningful work young attorneys can find in public service careers. Leigha Simonton, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, joined the school for an insightful and encouraging fireside chat with SMU Dedman Law Assistant Dean for Public Interest & Pro Bono, Laura G. Burstein. The conversation drew an array of questions from students and provided a unique networking opportunity for an audience of future attorneys.

Simonton worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for nearly 18 years before President Biden nominated her, and the Senate confirmed her, in 2022 to become U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, where she oversees a staff of more than 200, including 100 attorneys and over 100 support personnel.

A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Yale Law School, she returned to her hometown – she is a graduate of Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas – to take on clerkships and join the Dallas office of Haynes and Boone, LLP. After a few years working in commercial litigation, she changed trajectories and found her calling as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, where she argued more than 20 times before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and acted as sole counsel in nearly 400 criminal appeals.

Simonton introduced the audience first to the organization of the U.S. Attorney system: “The U.S. Attorney’s Office is part of the Department of Justice. There are 93 U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the country. We are responsible as part of the federal government for overseeing federal litigation in the entire geographic area. So, we have a region in our district that spans 100 counties, and my office oversees all federal criminal and civil cases implicating government interests in our area.”

Simonton’s office is comprised of three divisions: criminal, civil, and appellate. Although she rose through the ranks of the appellate division, where she eventually served as chief, she explained that each division was doing critical work for the government. “I would highly encourage you to look into working in any one of these divisions in any U.S. Attorney's Office because they all do really cool and exciting stuff,” she said.

Ms. Simonton’s first contact with the U.S. Attorney’s Office came the summer after her first year of law school. She was determined to try different types of legal jobs, so she began by interning in the same office that, 25 years later, she now heads. She explained that it was love at first sight. She was captivated by the facts of the cases on which she worked and the federal agents who roamed the hallways – a scene she described as being straight out of a television series. “I liked the other jobs, but nothing struck me like this,” she said. “I spent every day after that trying to figure out how to get into our office.”

As a young attorney, while clerking for U.S. District Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn – an SMU Dedman Law alumna – and then for Fifth Circuit Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham, Simonton again came into contact with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, watching the prosecutors try criminal cases, handle sentencings, and argue appeals. This confirmed to her that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was the right place for her.

Ms. Simonton also sang the praises of clerking before moving on to any type of legal practice. “The number one thing I got from a clerkship was writing experience,” she said. “I am a thousand times better at writing than I would have been if I hadn’t clerked for Judge Lynn.” She also explained that clerkships are invaluable for the opportunity to be mentored one-on-one by an accomplished jurist.

Ms. Simonton recalled her first instance of learning from Judge Lynn, explaining that, on her first day, she wrote the Judge a two-page memo and correctly spelled the word “arbitrator” on one page but misspelled it (“arbitrater”) on the second. Judge Lynn quickly handed it back and wrote two rules in big letters: (1) Don’t make a mistake; and (2) If you make a mistake, at least be consistent. “That was the beginning of me learning from her, and I later became known as a really good editor in my office.”

She said pathways to entering the U.S. Attorney’s Office would ideally include participating in the office’s internship program where aspiring attorneys get to learn the inner workings of a U.S. Attorney’s Office and meet representatives from different government agencies that interact with the office. Clerkships are also important. Even if the clerkship pay isn’t great, she said the delayed gratification is worth it.

Simonton further explained that federal employment in her office comes with perks like job security due to the apolitical nature of the office environment—changes in presidential administrations don’t have the effect of turnover one might expect—along with a pension and other long-term financial benefits. For financial considerations, she pointed to public interest stipends and loan forgiveness programs that structure payment schedules that waive the remaining balance on student loans after a certain period of time.

To apply to work in her office, she encouraged SMU Dedman students to consider the DOJ Honors Program--in which her office participates—and that, if they wanted a permanent Assistant U.S. Attorney position, they could apply after gaining as little as a year of postgraduate experience. She emphasized the personal fulfillment that attorneys find in her office and that, for them, the personal and public benefits of the job are well worth the lower salary they might make versus some private practice jobs.

“Statistics show that on average people are more fulfilled in public sector careers than they are in private sector careers, and I know the people in my office love what they do. It's because there is this team mentality and this mission that you have in a public interest job that you don't always have if you’re doing a different line of work.”

Having been in her position for over a year now, she said the excitement of being a top federal prosecutor still hasn’t worn off.

“I still can't believe it,” she said. “Sometimes I'll be grocery shopping, maybe with one of my kids, and I'm like, I'm the U.S. Attorney. I get to run this office. I just can't believe it. It's like a dream.”