In my current job as legal adviser, I’ve laid out four functions for the lawyers in my office. We play the multiple roles of counselor, conscience for the U.S. government on international law, defender of U.S. interests and spokesperson for U.S. relationships in international law. I ask my attorneys to see themselves as always playing one of those roles. You give people a frame of reference and hope they can internalize it.
How do you set clear goals and motivate employees?
In the last decade, values we took as givens have been under assault. Our country believes in human rights and is built on the rule of law. We are the guardians of that position. It resonates with our lawyers to affirm that. They came into the government to serve these values. I tell my office that they’re the greatest international law firm in the world, representing the greatest nation in the world, and I believe it. It’s not often you are a part of the greatest anything in the world. It builds a sense of pride for people to see themselves in that light.
What makes government service attractive to young lawyers, given the private-sector opportunities?
The crushing burden of law school debt meant people had to go to a higher-paying private practice, even if they didn’t really want to. Then private firms over-hired and furloughed many associates. Private practice became less attractive at the same moment President Obama was elected. Young people got a new sense of excitement about public service. We’ve been amazingly oversubscribed with people looking for positions. They’re willingly taking huge pay cuts.
What advice do you offer new attorneys?
Give me your best. It’s the least you can do. It’s also the most you can do. What more can I ask for? It’s also important for people to judge their own work. Forget about being given gold stars by others. Judge something by your own standards.
Is negativity creeping into the workforce and bringing down morale?
I’ve seen remarkably little impact, because people are so dedicated. I have to say I’m tired of the bashing of our public servants. The government employees I work with are incredibly impressive. For example, people who focus on rescuing American citizens being held abroad were working like crazy during the threat of a government shutdown. Their commitment was absolutely total. They would have been barred from doing their jobs during a shutdown. There was a lot of political posturing about “who needs the federal government” and that “the only worthwhile activities occur in the private sector.” I thought, “There is some massive disconnect here.” If one of [the legislators’] constituents was captured overseas, would they expect anything but the kind of dedication I’m seeing in my office?