Steve Bullock

Home Again

After law school and some time at a Washington, D.C., firm,
Steve Bullock ’94 realized that all roads pointed back to Montana’s attorney general’s office

By Joy Y. Wang

Winter 2010

Steve Bullock ’94 was a little more than four years out of law school when he rose from his chair in a Helena, Mont., courtroom, stated his name, and added, “I represent the people of Montana.” At the time, he was an assistant attorney general with the Montana Department of Justice. Bullock, who now serves as the state’s attorney general, remembers that morning in court like it was yesterday. Saying those six words aloud, notes the Montana native, is a moment he will forever value.

“It just clicked,” Bullock recounted during a conversation with students for Columbia Law School’s National State Attorneys General Program. “Professionally, it was an amazing, amazing experience.”

Bullock has covered a great deal of ground since his upbringing in Montana. In fact, he never anticipated leaving Montana in the first place. He is fond of including in any description of his childhood in Helena, a mention that the town is a place where doors were left unlocked and, as a teen, he routinely left his keys in his car without a second thought. Although he initially planned to attend the University of Montana along with the majority of his friends, Bullock’s mother convinced him to go beyond the state borders and attend Claremont McKenna College outside Los Angeles. From there, he journeyed to Columbia Law School, where it took Bullock some time to get acclimated.

“You’re in a world of overachievers,” Bullock said of his impressive classmates.
“But as I peeled off the layers of the onion [the students around me], what amazing people I met.”

In 1992, during Bullock’s second year at the Law School, his friend and fellow Montanan Joe Mazurek coaxed him back to his home state by asking Bullock to head his ultimately successful campaign for attorney general. Bullock spent the semester studying at the University of Montana School of Law, before returning to Morningside Heights and graduating from Columbia Law School.

When Mazurek finished his second term in 2000, Bullock, who had joined Montana’s Department of Justice three years after law school graduation, felt called to run for attorney general, despite the strong discouragement of many Democratic Party veterans, who claimed that he had no chance of winning the race. They were right, and he got “trounced,” Bullock recounts.

After the defeat, Bullock decided to try his hand at private practice in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in complex litigation at Steptoe & Johnson. While he enjoyed the work, Bullock recalls asking himself: “‘Is this what I want to do? Is this any conception of where I thought I’d be forever?’ And the nagging voice [said], ‘No, this isn’t what I want to do. I want to go back home.’” He did so, and went into private practice on his own for the next several years.

Nonetheless, for Bullock, all roads still pointed to the Montana attorney general’s office. Again, many Democratic elders strongly discouraged his run—suggesting instead he run for a different position, such as the state auditor—and again, despite the protests, Bullock ran for the office in 2008.

“More than anything, I worked harder,” he recalled. “I worked harder than the other two [candidates]. There wasn’t any magic to it.”

Not only did he survive the primary, he won the race. 

In some ways, everything has come full circle for the Montana native. The attorney general’s office overlooks Bullock’s childhood paper route, and while he admits that his income is significantly less than what many of his peers earn, Bullock feels right at home with the work he is doing.

As attorney general, Bullock has committed to stronger enforcement of consumer protection laws, defended the rights of Montanans to hunt and fish on public lands and streams, and created an advisory council to fight prescription drug abuse, to name only a few initiatives. “Your most difficult [and] challenging days are days where the issues you’re wrestling with are so significant and so important to some people,” he explained. “I can say that it’s everything I’d hoped for.”