Criminal Justice Careers: What's It Like to Be an FBI Agent?
What’s a career as an FBI agent really like? Saint Leo University Associate Professor Peter Wubbenhorst shares some insight.
There’s no typical day for an FBI agent.
But then legal counselor Peter Wubbenhorst was not your typical FBI agent, either.
There were many days during his 22-year career with the agency when he would snap on his bulletproof vest in the morning – ready to help a SWAT team take down a cop killer in a dangerous part of town.
But by afternoon, he could have easily switched to a suit and tie to interview a cabinet officer or member of Congress for a white-collar crime investigation.
Serving in the FBI in the dual roles of agent and lawyer was the ideal career, says Wubbenhorst. It enabled him to experience the adrenaline rush of field work he craved while employing his legal training and expertise.
Like most career paths, however, Wubbenhorst’s was not the direct line he anticipated.
Army veteran-turned attorney enters Navy JAG Corps.
After earning his undergraduate degree on an ROTC scholarship, Wubbenhorst served for four years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Discharged as a captain, he attended law school on the G.I. Bill.
Shunning the idea of a desk job, Wubbenhorst set his sights on the FBI and was accepted into the FBI Academy. A hiring freeze on all federal government jobs during the Carter administration, however, interrupted his game plan.
So he accepted a law professor’s advice and transferred to the Navy, where he served for three years as a trial attorney with the Judge Advocates General’s Corps (JAG).
Wubbenhorst then reapplied to the FBI and remained there for the rest of his federal career, which included stints in the General Counsel’s Office at FBI Headquarters, the Public Corruption Squad at the Washington Field Office, and as chief counsel for all FBI activities in Central Florida.
Wubbenhorst retired last year from his position as a full-time tenured professor at Saint Leo, but he still teaches as an adjunct and serves as an advisor for upper-level students in the criminal justice program. He was recently honored as a professor emeritus by Saint Leo President Arthur Kirk and the university’s board of trustees.
What attracted you to the FBI?
I knew that I would quickly become bored with a job that required me to sit behind a desk or in a cubicle all day. I liked being a JAG officer. But I didn’t want a life that took me only from my office to the courtroom. The FBI offered a unique opportunity to be with like-minded people doing something good and worthwhile. I could still get that ‘adrenaline rush’ from being on the streets and use my legal training, all at the same time.
What is starting out with the FBI like?
Every FBI agent has to pay his or her dues. I started as an investigator with the violent crimes squad in Alexandria, Va. Given my military experience, my special-agent- in-charge assigned me to the criminal unit conducting investigations on military bases. It was a great fit.
How did you combine the two roles – agent and attorney?
The FBI uses attorneys in the field as agent-attorneys to provide on-the-spot legal advice. We assist with search and seizure procedure or we might go out with a SWAT team and be involved in the decision authorizing a sniper to shoot during a hostage situation.
How dangerous is working for the FBI?
I carried a gun for more than 20 years and have been in several armed confrontations. But the bad guys decided to surrender rather than shoot it out with us – a good choice on their part. The FBI uses the element of surprise and the element of overwhelming manpower. That’s why there are very few FBI cases that involve gunfight.
How did you deal with the stress of the job?
When you’ve been out in the field making a drug bust or chasing down a cop killer, you come back to the office and your adrenaline is still pumping. Every nerve you have is on edge. So the best thing to do is to hit the gym and work it out.
Were you involved in any high-profile cases?
When I was assigned to the Public Corruption Squad at the Washington Field Office, I helped investigate crooked politicians, as well as dirty contractors and lobbyists who were trying to bribe politicians. I was part of the squad that investigated and arrested Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry on drug charges in 1990. It was one of the most publicized cases in the FBI’s history, and certainly the most high-profile one I was directly involved in.
What was it like being in the FBI immediately following 9/11?
I was working as chief counsel for Central Florida. The flight school where so many of the hijackers trained was in Venice. So we were involved in the investigation of the school and students who knew them. There were so many leads that we were totally consumed. We ran a 24-hour-a-day operation issuing subpoenas for records and putting together all the pieces. It was heady times, for sure.
How tough is it to get a job these days at the federal level as an agent?
Without a doubt, agency jobs are competitive. It’s tough, but it’s doable. And it’s definitely worth the effort, because it can be a very rewarding career. It definitely was for me.
What steps can a student take to prepare for an agency career?
Lay the proper groundwork. Get a degree, of course. If you’re a traditional student, get involved in the life of your university. If you’re an older adult, show that you have a satisfactory work record, whether it’s in the military or business. Show you’re a reliable, hard-working employee or student. That you’re responsible and committed.
What are agencies looking for?
The FBI looks at the whole person. They want people who are knowledgeable and relevant. Skills and knowledge are a given, but they don’t want intelligent “duds.” They want someone who’s vibrant and energetic.
What advice do you have for those who have been in the military and are seeking a career in criminal justice?
When it comes to preparing themselves for new careers in criminal justice, I see so many of our veterans selling themselves short on the value of their military experience. It’s tremendous experience because it shows self-discipline. It proves that they can accomplish a mission. That’s invaluable for any career in criminal justice.
What advice do you have for anyone who would like to work for the FBI, or any federal agency?
Whether you’re an online, on campus, or center student, your Saint Leo education will afford you the opportunity to compete in the marketplace and to realize your dreams and goals.
But there are no guarantees for anything in life. The key is to apply yourself. You can succeed by putting yourself above the competition. Read. Research. Inquire. Seek out mentors.
You have to go after it. It won’t come to you. You have to be persistent.
What is there about a career with the FBI that interests you?
Image Credit: http://www.fbi.gov/news/galleries/2012-photo-gallery