Nick Barnes may have been born and educated in Philadelphia, but it’s clear that he’s a New Yorker at heart. Today, he’s strolling along the Brooklyn Bridge on a perfect metropolitan afternoon. Clusters of tourists, from the U.S. and abroad, amble past him, lifting their cameras to capture the sights and selfies. Cyclists buzz by in both directions, their shouts of “on your left” punctuating the brisk spring air.
The bridge is a microcosm of the city; fast-paced, energetic, diverse, and crowded. Nick Barnes fell in love with New York City almost immediately. “A lot of people hate it because it’s big, but that’s why I love it,” he says. “There are so many diverse people. You can go anywhere and meet people who work in so many different industries.”
In early September 2016, Barnes began his legal career at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. In a city so large, it is perhaps ironic that his journey to law school began just a few blocks away from the D.A., at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
Barnes was a recent college graduate trying to decide whether to embark on a career in politics or law. A friend, who had formerly worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, sent his resume to the Director of Hiring. Barnes hoped it would help him decide if studying law was the right move for him. It turned out to be much more.
Barnes was still an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, announced that they were charging 17 employees of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (“Claims Conference”) with fraud. The Claims Conference managed a fund set up by the German government to pay reparations to victims of the Holocaust.
The employees, who were ultimately convicted, were engaged in a long-running fraudulent scheme in which they forged and doctored reparation applications to collect illegal payouts from the fund. They additionally processed legitimate applications for people who were deserving and then convinced those recipients that they had to give a cut of their reparations back to employees of the Claims Conference.
Barnes joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a paralegal in 2011, just as the case was heading to trial. During the trial’s three month duration, Barnes found himself in the office seven days a week with the prosecutorial team preparing exhibits. As someone who rowed through high school and college, Barnes relished the opportunity to be a part of a team again. “I really appreciated being around that team for such a long period of time and having everyone in the same room working towards the same goal,” says Barnes, who adds that the experience overall “really taught me the ways in which prosecutors have the ability to do good in society.”
Inspired, Barnes applied to law school, and returned to his Philadelphia roots by attending Temple Law School. Barnes admits that when looking back at the experiences that shaped him, many don’t seem geared towards someone so focused on becoming a prosecutor.
Barnes specifically recalls a class taught by Professor Marissa Bluestine, Legal Director at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, called Innocence and Wrongful Convictions. “I think Professor Bluestine really helped me define my sense of justice,” says Barnes. “She’s dedicated to pursuing the correct process. Regardless of the severity of the crime charged, we need to make sure the prosecution is fair. We need to make sure it is done correctly.”
Regardless of the severity of the crime charged, we need to make sure the prosecution is fair. We need to make sure it is done correctly.
Barnes also took part in the School Discipline Advocacy Service (SDAS), a student-led organization that advocates for students in the Philadelphia School District who are facing suspensions, expulsions, and other disciplinary actions. Barnes initially joined the organization to help his friends manage the high number of calls coming in. Once he became involved, however, Barnes was moved by the stories he heard and the impact they had on him. While the organization is definitely defense-oriented, Barnes took an important lesson from his time there. “It humanizes the people on the other end of the process. I hope that perspective will make me a better prosecutor. You’re not dealing with criminals; you’re dealing with human beings.”
There was also the Law & Public Policy Program, which is well-known and sought-after among policy-focused law students, but not necessarily among students focused on a career in criminal law. “That opportunity really allowed me to find my voice,” says Barnes, who spent the summer following his 1L year in Washington, D.C. working for the Federal Trade Commission. “It’s an environment where you can sit across the table from someone whose beliefs are completely different than your own and have a conversation about where our legal system should go and how to solve social problems. It was an unbelievable experience.”
Perhaps nothing was more influential for Barnes, however, than his time on Moot Court. “It developed my ability to think creatively, think on my feet, and speak confidently,” he says. Barnes competed, and was a finalist in, Temple’s Polsky Competition during the fall of his 2L year, and was the runner-up in the Stern Competition during his 2L spring. Based on his results, he represented Temple at the National Moot Court Competition during the fall of his 3L year, where he and two colleagues advanced to the semi-final round of competition.
Ultimately, whether through Moot Court, classes, experiential programs, or most likely, a combination of the three, Barnes has come a long way as a lawyer since that German Holocaust case that made such an impression on him in 2011. And yet, in other respects, as he joins the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, he is very much the same person.
“The Holocaust case really impressed upon me the prosecutor’s responsibility to do the right thing,” says Barnes. “I think for a lot of people that concept has different meanings, but for me, it’s about protecting innocent people, holding guilty people accountable for what they’ve done, and, much more broadly, protecting the community.”
[…] For me, it’s about protecting innocent people, holding guilty people accountable for what they’ve done, and, much more broadly, protecting the community.
Barnes pauses, and thinks back to something a professor at Temple Law School told him while he prepared for his interviews with the Manhattan District Attorney. “One thing Professor Bretschneider mentioned to me, which really stuck with me, is that prosecutors have a really cool, unique job. That’s to uncover the truth in all cases – big and small, for the victims and for the accused,” says Barnes. “I think that’s an awesome responsibility and it’s not lost on me.”