It took a little forward planning to organize a chat with another extremely busy past student. Alex Kalim left Hurtwood in 1999 to study History at Sussex University. Having notched up various layers of work experience, he is currently a Trial Attorney at the US Department of Justice in Washington, dealing in International Affairs. After failing to meet up on a working trip to London (breathing time barely allowed it turned out), a Facetime call finds Alex more than ready to share his post-Hurtwood journey with a professional gravitas and in spite of lack of sleep: ‘We have a newborn,’ he tells me. ‘We don’t sleep anymore.’
He launches straight into sterling advice about ‘real world experience’ from gap year work alongside that rush to get ‘those academic credentials’. For him, this involved working for a year in Washington in a ‘think tank – a public policy group’, giving him a ‘front row’ on the world that he thought he wanted to enter, the world of ‘academia/politics’. How did he get it? He ‘spewed out’ over 50 applications and this one came back. He comments on the difficulty of getting ‘top job’ experience, recommending that ‘you humble yourself’ to take on work at any level, ‘treating internship like a real job’, regardless of whether you are being paid or not. ‘Be the first one there and the last to leave’ he advises. This is where you could get noticed. Take nothing for granted and give it your all. A year-long Masters at King’s in International Relations and National Security followed in 2004, a year of extraordinary change, deeply affected by the wider fall-out of the Iraq war and the Madrid bombings, he found himself moved by the human implications of what was going on, nudging him away from the world of security and policy. ‘They were bringing bodies out and we were going to talk about policies… it didn’t compute for me.’
Alex’s response was to turn back to the USA and work in business for a couple of years, until the financial crash of 2008 turned him towards more stable career prospects and he began his move towards the law. Three years of studying followed in Washington, a year working in clerkship with a judge, then he went straight into the Department of Justice and has been there now nearly four years. So quickly? How come? He had performed well, had ‘life experience’ and had network connections: not, he emphasizes, connections made lightly in socializing and drinking, but solid meeting of people through work and internship. Identify if possible those people who seem to be at the centre of what interests you; make sure they see you. Networking is not just about ‘loosening your tie at the end of the day’. It clearly involves commitment and hard work, impressing the right people over time so he was able to get the kind of solid recommendation from the right person – to the appropriate person when a job prospect beckoned.
So what does the job involve? ‘We’re the Office of International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Justice and support over 158,000 prosecutors, and law enforcement officers, in the Department’ covering a massive range of functions, far greater, it seems, than the more specific elements of British services. The particular functions are spread between extradition (Mexican cartel drug lord El Chapo and British hacker Laurie Love are mentioned), mutual legal assistance (negotiating with other legal systems, and this means a lot of ‘inbound traffic’ – request from other countries) and, finally, what he calls ‘ephemera’, which seems to involve a lot of advice on foreign policies, treaty negotiation, meeting with our foreign counterparts. ‘We have a large footprint’, he tells me – but the job fundamentally centers around ‘getting the bad guys out, or bringing them back.’ Simple it is clearly not. Fascinating? Resoundingly yes. We live in interesting times, we agree, and on both sides of the brink; what Alex clarifies is that the Department functions in a clearly non-political way, with clear moral imperatives driving the job. Changes of leadership are part of the function of the world in which he moves, and it is a world in which he is clearly thriving and ‘getting on with the jobs I have to get on with.’
So tying our conversation up I ask him what, if anything, Hurtwood did to prepare him for this challenging and fulfilling role. ‘Plenty’, is his clear response, top of the list being the philosophy of freedom and responsibility, giving ‘enough rope to be independent, but hopefully not enough to hang oneself.’ He calls it a ‘unique experience’, one that trains you up for when the ‘gloves are off’ and you can function in the real world. ‘Learning parameters and self-discipline’ were central, and also in a ‘life-learning’ sense, how ‘you decompress’, how you cultivate your free time. He cites Hurtwood as giving him a higher level of appreciation and pleasure for the arts, cinema, theatre and film; not necessarily central in career terms, he observes, but vital if your work is stressful and demanding. He also recalls how his work in the Theatre Department set him up for highly effective court performance, in terms of commanding and controlling attention. He suggests that the American system might be more theatrical than the British, but I don’t think I’m convinced. Critical thinking was central to his A level work at Hurtwood, but also the absolute value of oratory – being thrown in the deep end of performance and getting used to using rhetorical skills.
He shares some happy memories of being part of the cast of the Christmas show Cabaret, flying home early the next morning to Washington after a last night celebration enlivened by a parental donation of a vast bottle of champagne. Not to be recommended, apparently. Another dubious experience involved being the only boy in his English group, studying ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, and being challenged constantly for the male viewpoint. Hmm, I agree, I can see the problem. So – a good time was had on many levels, and a good time is still being had, it seems. Of what is he most proud? What has been hardest? Finding the right path and the level of frustration that that involves. Pushing through this, and keeping up the momentum to find that working world that works for you. That he has achieved this is also clear, and I leave him to his demanding but rewarding working day - at home. Twenty years down the road, it has been a pleasure to hear the twists and turns of his onward path, learn a little more about the American justice system, and also have confirmation that if there is a key to success in a working world, it still has much to do with enthusiasm, hard work and, it would seem, theatrical performance.