Rep. Mikie Sherrill, L’07, on Career Flexibility and Public Service Values

April 18, 2024

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, L'07

U.S. Representative Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), L’07, returned to her law school alma mater on April 15 to retrace the path that led her from piloting Navy helicopters to studying law at Georgetown to running for – and serving in – Congress.

In conversation with Dean William M. Treanor, Sherrill shared several anecdotes about turning points in her life, starting with her decade-long career in the U.S. Navy. She wanted to learn to fly like her grandfather, who’d been a fighter pilot in World War II – and she did, training as a helicopter pilot in the first class of women eligible to serve in combat. She also was deeply disturbed by the post-September 11 Global War on Terrorism, which led her to decide to go to law school.

“To see the United States torturing people… doing things that I thought were really contrary to our values, was something that I was personally offended by,” she said. “I thought, we really need to make sure people are protected, and that’s something I’d be interested in working on.”

As a law student, she had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill, interning for then-Senator Patrick Leahy, L’64, H’94, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. After graduation, she worked for a time at a large law firm, but felt drawn back to public service. Sherrill spoke candidly about the challenges she faced at the time, balancing her growing family (she and her husband eventually had four children) and financial obligations with her interest in working in government. She hoped to become an Assistant U.S. Attorney, but there was a hiring freeze in place for those roles. Then, unexpectedly, a conversation with an acquaintance from another law school internship led to a non-litigation job at the Department of Justice, and ultimately to the position she’d hoped for, as an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey. She offered that experience up as a lesson to the students in the audience to leave some flexibility in their plans for the future.

“In my career, I would get in my mind exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “[But] you have to be open, because sometimes opportunities find you that you regret later if you don’t explore them.”

A man and woman sitting in armchairs on a stage and speaking to each other

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, L’07, and Dean William M. Treanor

A few years later, her concerns about the Trump Administration’s attacks on the rule of law led to another momentous decision: to run for Congress in 2018. Treanor, a native of the New Jersey district she now represents, noted that for generations before her, the Congressional seat had been held by the Republican Party. Sherrill explained how she’d found issues that were important to local voters from across the political spectrum and put in the time to meet as many potential constituents in person as she could. Today, in a gridlocked and polarized Congress and campaigning for reelection, she still believes in her approach.

“It’s hard to divide people in this country,” she said. “Bringing people together feels, to me, a more natural way.”

Sherrill closed out her visit by encouraging the students present to find a way to pay forward some of the advantages of being able to study at Georgetown, whether through public interest work, mentoring, pro bono projects or philanthropy.

“Somebody at Georgetown told me [law] wasn’t simply a job, but was really a vocation. And that’s what being a lawyer at its best is,” she said. “Whatever it is that you think your vocation is, you are now getting the tools to do it. And so my advice to you is to constantly be thinking of how you can be of service.”