Recruiting role: FBI agent puts her legal background to good use


By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

In many respects, Special Agent Mara Schneider joined the FBI on a lark. While at a wedding, Schneider – who’s been with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 10 years – ran into an old college friend who became an FBI agent upon leaving the Army.

 “He started talking about how much he enjoyed his job,” said Schneider. “At the time, I didn’t really think much of it but then began considering the FBI once I was in law school. Coming from a mixed-race background, civil rights have always been important to me. My parents were married in 1966 at a time when it was illegal in some states for my African-American father and my Caucasian mother to marry. I grew up hearing about how the FBI investigated the hate crimes of the 1960s when no one else would. I joined the FBI to work civil rights cases and have been very fortunate to have been able to do that while I was in New York.”

Stationed in the Detroit Division, Schneider is a recruiter for the FBI. “My job is to go to colleges and community groups and speak to people about the process for applying to the FBI as a professional staff person or as an agent. There is always a group of people who have thought about joining the FBI since they were young and they come to me with questions about the application process. Then there is a group of people like me who may have never considered the FBI as a career until they spoke to someone in the FBI. My job is to meet and talk to those folks about the FBI and to encourage them to join us,” she said.

According to Schneider, the FBI wants to recruit people who are engineers, accountants, teachers, lawyers – not just people with law enforcement and/or military backgrounds “It’s important for the FBI to recruit diversity of thought, perspective, and experience, so that it is not composed of people who share the same opinion,” she said. “As an organization, we want people who think differently working together so that they can bounce ideas off one another to develop novel ways of approaching an investigation.

 “We also investigate more than 300 federal violations – major financial crimes, civil rights, public corruption, terrorism, cyber-crimes, and many others – so we need people who speak those unique ‘languages,’ if you will, so that we can be better at investigating each of those types of crimes.”

Born in in California, Schneider belonged to a military family, which moved a lot. She attended high school overseas. She earned her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Notre Dame, and her juris doctor from the University of Michigan Law School. She graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. in 2008. Additionally, she completed graduate work in chemical engineering at Purdue University.

Serving as an attorney was always her lifelong ambition, but she got sidetracked and became an engineer. “My childhood dream was to be a lawyer until my high school physics teacher convinced me to look at engineering because I was good at math and science,” said Schneider. “I liked the idea of helping to create something: a car, a new drug for a pharmaceutical company, etc. I chose chemical engineering because chemistry was always my favorite science. I had the option of working for a chemical company or a pharmaceutical company and I chose pharmaceuticals. I have always liked the idea of helping people. I liked the work, but quickly realized I would need an advanced degree to do what I wanted which was research and development. I spent (more than) four years in graduate school during which time I realized it wasn’t for me.”

Schneider finally achieved her childhood dream and went to law school. She was a practicing attorney for four years before joining the FBI, specializing in criminal appeals. “I have always had a fascination with the study of criminal behavior and made the decision early on to study criminal law instead of patent law. I took some time off after leaving graduate school – I worked at a bookstore and at a crisis line – before applying for law school. I didn't want to feel like I was jumping into the next thing without thinking it through. Best decision I ever made. I loved law school,” she recalled.

Sporting a legal background has been beneficial when working for the FBI, according to Schneider. “First, it has helped with all of the administrative work we have to do,” she said. “As agents, we do a lot of writing for our supervisors, prosecutors, and judges. Having a strong legal writing background makes it a lot easier to write reports in a way that makes all of those folks happy. Second, being a lawyer prepared me for being able to analyze a set of facts and determine what is and what is not important to a case. Third, having a good working knowledge of the First and Fourth Amendments is helpful for conducting any kind of investigation. Finally, I have been able to help people prepare for testifying at trial by acting as the defense attorney.”   

Schneider separated fact from fiction, differentiating the FBI from its fictional counterpart on TV shows like “Blind Spot,” “Criminal Minds,” “Bones,” and “The X-Files.”

“I think the biggest misconception is that we have access to all kinds of information at the push of a button. We have to go through legal process to get information, which means that we have to establish a level of proof that would satisfy a prosecutor or a judge that we are entitled to the information. It’s not as easy as it looks on TV – nor should it be.

“The FBI doesn’t do small investigations. We work on thwarting the next terrorist threat, finding a kidnapped child or a child who has been lured into sex trafficking, and any number of other very serious offenses while simultaneously protecting people’s civil liberties. Failure to do our job diligently has consequences not only for individuals, but also for the whole of the American people. The most challenging part of the job – to me anyway – is to balance the responsibility we feel to our country and our communities with the responsibility we have to our family and friends.”

For Schneider, the best part of her job is waking up with the knowledge she is making a positive impact in her community, clichéd as that may sound. “I have always wanted a job with moral content that allowed me to serve the people in and around my community. I come from a long line of military folks and, while that wasn’t the path I chose, service to my country is important to me,” said Schneider.

“These days, that impact looks a little different than when I was working Crimes Against Children and worked closely with the victims of the subjects I was investigating. These days, the impact is planting a seed with a younger generation that the FBI could be a career for them. In that way, I’m contributing to the continued success of the FBI and helping to ensure that the next generation of agents comes from backgrounds filled with diversity of thought, perspective, and experience.”