Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer (CC ’80, Law ’85) visited campus last Wednesday to speak with students and visitors about his education at Columbia, career in public service, and to share some witticisms about life. Alex Jones was there to document this alum’s rise to the top of the legal world. Sorry it’s so late… we consumed too much candy, among other things, over the past few days.
Breuer’s Experience at Columbia
He grew up in Queens in a small, two bedroom apartment. He fondly remembers the hot summer days when he would leave home in the morning, play sports all day, and then return after the sun set. Breuer acknowledges that Columbia in 1976 (his freshmen fall) was not the Columbia we know today. Academically and culturally, Columbia reflected the declining urban area surrounding it. It was not a “cushy, soft, sweet place,” Breuer recounts. “It was great, I loved it, but it was New York… You didn’t go south of about 110th street.” Clearly, not too different.
Career In Public Service
Breuer flirted with becoming a therapist, because he “grew up in a Woody Allen home,” but decided on law school simply because he felt like law would be a fun thing to do. After graduation, he worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office from 1985 till 1989– a period notable in New York City’s history for high rates of violent crime, a surging crack epidemic, and the beginning of widespread outbreak of AIDS. For Breuer, in a “very sick and perverse way, as a prosecutor, it was spectacular.” He views his experience working in the DA’s office as formative, and the foundation of his dedication to public service. “If you were eager and worked hard, you got to quickly prosecute very violent crimes.”
Breuer leveraged his experience as a prosecutor to bag a cushy job at the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling. There, he represented many of the subjects of Congressional investigations. This entailed working on President Clinton’s White House legal defense team for Lewinsky-related investigations and the subsequent impeachment hearings. In 2009, Breuer was nominated by President Obama, and confirmed by the Senate, to head the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice.
A Wild Legacy
One of Breuer’s most famous prosecutions while in the DA’s office was of “Wildman” Steve Brill. The “Wildman” gave daily tours of Central Park that noted and sampled available edible plants. The DA’s office was concerned that some innocent tourist was going to be poisoned by the unregulated tour, and so it was Breuer’s job to bring about justice to the situation. The case was settled out of court, making Brill an employee of the Park Service and giving tours that were regulated by the city. To Breuer’s surprise, there were several members of the audience that had recently gone on Brill’s tour, which is still offered.
Breuer’s final advice to ambitious students: just do things that are fun. He figures that people are more successful at things that they enjoy. How we are to decide what’s more fun–art history or making tons of money on Wall Street–was not clarified.