Congratulations to our August 2013 IMPACT Leader of the Month, Donald Sherman!
Donald K. Sherman is counsel on the Democratic staff of the House Oversight Committee in Washington, DC, and author of the unique careers blog “Somebody Does That?!” His work on Capitol Hill primarily focuses on the committee’s oversight investigations, and the hearings that arise from them. Prior to joining Ranking Member Cummings’ staff, Donald was an investigative counsel for the House Ethics Committee. Donald graduated cum laude from Georgetown University with a degree in American Studies and earned his law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center.
In addition to his day job, Donald mentors high school and college students, and serves as Board Chair of the Patrick Healy Fellowship, a mentoring program for student leaders at Georgetown University, as well as DC Lawyers for Youth, a juvenile justice policy and advocacy organization. Donald’s writing has appeared in the award-nominated book Family Affair, College Xpress, On Being a Black Lawyer, the Georgetown University Journal on Gender and the Law. He has also participated in numerous career panels hosted by youth organizations such as the Patrick Healy Fellowship and the DC-based mentoring program, Capital Partners for Education.
You can find Donald on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his blog “Somebody Does That?!” online.
INTERVIEW | Getting to Know Donald Sherman
What inspired you to pursue a career as an attorney working in the public policy realm?
I don’t think I ever seriously considered doing anything else. When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher, Ms. Divack would always have us try new things and weird projects. So naturally we gave her a hard time. One of those projects was a mock Supreme Court argument through the Constitution Works program. That one experience changed my life. I became really excited about the law and decided that’s the field I wanted to pursue when I grew up. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate all of the different things lawyers can do, but I liked that it held the possibility of creating precedent, making history.
I didn’t know a lot of lawyers growing up, but the ones I knew of – the Barbara Jordans and Julian Bonds of the world – they were involved in social justice. That’s how they impacted history, arguing before the Supreme Court, and pushing for the expansion of civil rights policy. So I just thought that’s what lawyers do. Since graduating from law school, I’ve learned to use the law in order to affect how government functions in my time with the Oversight Committee. I’ve also been able to use my legal expertise to address the issues most important to me, such as juvenile justice reform through DC Lawyers for Youth and DC voting rights with DC Vote.
What is the key to balancing your professional, philanthropic and social commitments?
I actually find it easier to manage my time when I have more commitments. It forces me to really value my time, and plan for the busy periods. Before I launched my unique careers blog, Somebody Does That?!, I spent a year gathering stories and writing profiles so that I could continue posting as work got more and more hectic. That said, sometimes you just have to find ways to prioritize. Work generally comes first, but there are also times when you have to draw a line in the sand to protect life events that are significant to your family and close friends. Last year I was best man in my best friend’s wedding, and I wasn’t going to miss that for the world. So I made sure that I had everything settled at work so that I could have the necessary time off to be there for my friend.
What is the biggest mistake young professionals make, especially when pursuing elected office or even navigating their career on Capitol Hill?
They can spend too much time networking and not enough time building relationships. To be sure, both are important, but I think a lot of people on the Hill confuse the former with the latter. Networking can definitely lead to building stronger relationships, but it doesn’t happen overnight. I pass along a lot of people’s resumes, but I only advocate on behalf of people that I know from experience to be diligent workers and highly thoughtful individuals.
You can network at all kinds of events that happen on the Hill. Relationship building, by contrast, occurs over the course of long nights spent working on legislation or an investigation. It comes from having a shared experience of victory or defeat. It comes from sharing interests or personal anecdotes, and having meaningful conversations with people. Sometimes that is difficult to do given everyone’s time commitments, but it’s absolutely necessary to finding success on the Hill and most other career paths.
What advice would you give other young professionals who desire to excel in the political realm, especially young African American men?
Be nice to everyone. Do favors for people when you can, especially when it costs you little or nothing. I recently wrote about this in my blog, but not only can nice guys finish first, it may be essential to your professional development. Beyond the basic social good involved in helping others, you never know when someone will be in a position to help you down the road. The staff assistant that you lend a hand might also be the same person who drives a Committee Chairman to and from work every day. Back in my days as a law firm lawyer, the support staff often prioritized my requests ahead of the lawyers who didn’t speak to them in the morning.
Likewise, the Members of Congress that really thrive are the ones that have the best relationship with their peers. Obviously hard work and excellence will take you far, but that’s only enough to get you in the game. Success requires a lot of help, and a lot of luck. If you cultivate goodwill with your peers, good luck is more likely to follow.
What’s been the best experience of your career thus far (or the most rewarding)?
Working for the Oversight Committee has been a great opportunity to expand my skill set as a lawyer. Some of my favorite moments have been had working late with my colleagues on an investigation or celebrating a hearing that has gone well. Still, I think the best experiences go back to the reason why I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place – history. On a daily basis, I get to work on issues that will become a significant part of our collective memory. Hopefully my work on behalf of the Committee brings to light facts that will help shape that memory.
Sometimes, as in the contempt vote for Attorney General Eric Holder – the first time a sitting cabinet member has been held in contempt of Congress – it’s not the desired outcome. However, despite the result, the investigation was not only a significant professional milestone, but also afforded me an experience that I can share with my colleagues for the rest of my life. I will always remember sitting on the House floor as the vote was happening, watching Members of the Congressional Black Caucus lead a walkout, and witnessing history that day.
What’s next for you in your career? What should we look out for?
Lots. For the time being, I plan to continue doing what I’m doing, Congressional investigations, writing, and volunteering in my spare time. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience meeting with people across the country and writing about their fascinating career paths, so I am working on turning “Somebody Does That?!” into a larger book project. I would also love to work in the Administration or possibly hold public office, so I will be exploring those paths as well in the coming years. The key is to stay busy and stay working.
Lastly, give me three words that sum you up?
Enthusiastic, Motivated, and Contemplative.
What is your Twitter handle? What email address can people use to reach you?