A Lucky Break
She’s doing the same amount of work for half the money, but Julie Ruder says getting the opportunity to switch from a big firm to the prosecutor’s office was one of the luckiest things to ever happen to her.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago, led by Patrick Fitzgerald, has been involved in some of the country’s most significant recent prosecutions. Yet when Ruder joined the office in 2003, she had scant trial experience and even less experience with criminal law.
“I didn’t know what a grand jury was or how to do an indictment,” she admits.
Luckily, Ruder was a quick study. Like she had a choice: In her first week as an AUSA, she was assigned to a high-profile case involving allegations that truck companies bribed Chicago employees to obtain city business.
That case led to the prosecution of a member of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s staff, Robert Sorich, who was convicted of mail fraud for helping provide jobs and promotions as rewards for political workers.
Today Ruder is involved in the prosecution of Conrad Black, the former chairman and chief executive of Hollinger International who is accused along with other executives of looting millions of dollars from the Chicago-based media holding company.
In the past three years, Ruder has tried six cases. All of her assignments, Ruder says, are significantly different than the business litigation work she did in private practice.
“It’s about people at their core, what makes them tick and makes them do good and bad things,” she says. “I thank my lucky stars that I got this job.”
Righting wrongs is a big motivator for Ruder, who grew tired of defending private clients and wrangling over things such as document review.
“I kept asking myself, ‘What is this for? Don’t we want to get to the truth?’ ” she says.
Parenthood also influenced her decision to join the agency.
“I’d had my second baby, and I was spending a significant amount of time involving my career,” she says. “It was starting to be more important to me that my work be meaningful and my time was spent doing something that mattered.”
So important that Ruder left private practice three months after being named a nonequity partner. She had been at the law firm for six years after starting there as a summer associate.
Ruder had applied for the assistant U.S. attorney position before being named partner, but the agency has a lengthy hiring process.
Telling her former employer was difficult, Ruder adds, but the financial sacrifice was not—even though her salary was cut roughly in half.
With no law school loans, Ruder says, the only significant financial sacrifice she made was downsizing to a smaller home for lower mortgage payments.
She adds that although assistant U.S. attorneys earn significantly less than senior associates, the salary is actually pretty good compared to many incomes.
“Had I stayed five more years, it would have been very difficult to leave for public service,” Ruder says. “I took a substantial pay cut, but it was at a time when I knew I could make do with less.”
The workload, Ruder says, is similar to what it was in private practice. As a single parent, she generally takes work home to do after her children are in bed, and she doesn’t work weekends unless she’s in trial.
Ruder’s office is decorated with courtroom sketches, as well as newspaper headlines and photo collages. Artwork by her children is also displayed. Her oldest, who is 5 and can read, sees her name in print and sometimes asks about her work.
“The way I’ve described it is that I try to help and make things safer for him, and there are people who do bad things,” Ruder says. “So my job is to find out who did the bad thing and go to court.”