Barack Obama, Biglaw, Fabulosity, Federal Government, Military / Military Law, Partner Issues, Politics

An Afternoon With Jeh Johnson, General Counsel of the Defense Department

Jeh Johnson

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fate of Guantanamo Bay. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The rise of WikiLeaks. The raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. The conflict in Libya.

On these and many other critical national security legal issues, one of the most important advisers to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Barack Obama’s White House has been Jeh C. Johnson, General Counsel of the Department of Defense. In light of his role as senior legal adviser to the largest government agency in the world, responsible for the work of over 10,000 lawyers, it is no understatement to describe Johnson as one of the powerful and influential lawyers in the entire federal government.

I recently went down to Washington to interview Johnson in his office at the Pentagon. If you think security at your law firm is tight, visit the Pentagon. I had to pass through a metal detector and multiple security checkpoints before arriving at Johnson’s office, located on the E Ring within the mammoth structure — the world’s largest office building by floor area, with over 6.5 million square feet housing over 25,000 employees. (I was accompanied at all times by a member of Johnson’s staff, which prevented me from getting lost inside the maze-like complex.)

Before entering Johnson’s private office, I had to surrender my Blackberry – the office is a SCIF (pronounced “skiff”), or “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.” This means that it is specially designed to prevent eavesdropping, thanks to walls and doors of specified thickness and the use of jamming technologies. The windows of Johnson’s office, tinted a yellowish green, are blast-resistant and designed to preclude visual surveillance.

Once I made it to the inner sanctum, I was in for a treat. My wide-ranging discussion with Jeh Johnson covered his remarkable career path, which has included service as a federal prosecutor, partnership at a top law firm (Paul Weiss), and his current post as GC of the Defense Department; the virtues of public service, as well as the growing challenges for lawyers interested in it; and Johnson’s advice for law students and lawyers who aspire to careers in government (hint: keep your nanny on the books)….

Johnson’s large private office is an amazing space, filled with remarkable objects. These include model planes and ships, meticulously maintained (Johnson collects them); a rack full of brightly colored military coins, which are used for challenges; and numerous framed commendations, certificates, newspaper articles, and photographs (including a great one of Johnson, his son, and President Obama). The office has multiple telephones, of varying levels of security: confidential, secret, and top secret. Johnson has one main computer, but with the flick of a button, he can toggle between multiple email systems – again, confidential, secret, and top secret.

The spacious office contains a large conference table – a necessity, given how many meetings Johnson has each day (more on that later). He and I sat at the conference table and chatted for almost an hour and a half, under the watchful gaze of Lieutenant Colonel Tanya Bradsher, a Pentagon public affairs officer.

I asked: Is Johnson enjoying his service as General Counsel of the Defense Department?

“Am I having fun? No, I’m not having fun,” said Johnson, good-naturedly. “Public service is not a frolic or a sabbatical. There are over 10,000 lawyers in DoD, I oversee their work, and I make less than a first year associate at Paul Weiss. ‘Enjoy’ is not the right word.”

So why did Johnson leave his (extremely lucrative) Paul Weiss partnership to take up this post?

“Loyalty to this President, commitment to public service and the safety of our country, and never having a dull day are what keep me going,” he said. “There is nothing else I’d rather be doing right now. It’s not exactly fun, but it is fulfilling and demanding, and I do it out of a sense of public service.”

Johnson’s current, Senate-confirmed post as General Counsel to the DoD is the top line of a long and dazzling résumé. After graduating from Morehouse College in 1979 and Columbia Law School in 1982, he worked for approximately two years as a litigation associate at the white-shoe firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. In 1984, he moved laterally to the similarly elite firm of Paul Weiss, where he hoped to keep working on complex cases while also exploring his interests in politics and public affairs. PW has a long tradition of public service, with numerous lawyers who have moved back and forth between the private and public sectors. (During our interview, Johnson pulled out of his desk drawer a 1976 New York Times article about Paul Weiss which he read in college and told me, “This is what inspired me to want to come to Paul Weiss.”)

After working for several years as an associate at Paul Weiss, alongside such legendary litigators as Arthur Liman, Morris Abram and name partner Simon Rifkind, Johnson decided he wanted to pursue a longtime goal that he held back in law school: service as a federal prosecutor. He interviewed for a position as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York and was hired, by then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani. During his three years as an AUSA in the S.D.N.Y., Johnson tried 12 cases and argued 11 appeals, with a focus on public corruption cases.

Johnson returned to Paul Weiss in 1992, and two years later, he became the firm’s first African-American partner. He remained at the firm, litigating complex civil and criminal cases, until 1998, when he was offered the opportunity to serve as General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force, in the administration of President Bill Clinton. Although Johnson had never set foot in the Pentagon prior to that point, he was intrigued and excited by the challenge, which he accepted. He served as GC of the Air Force for over two years, from October 1998 to January 2001.

After the end of the Clinton Administration, Johnson returned to New York and to Paul Weiss. He had missed some profitable years for the partnership: “When they told me earnings per share for the years that I missed, I practically fell out of my chair!”

Fortunately for Johnson (and Paul Weiss), the best years were yet to come. The next eight years were successive record years for the firm in terms of profitability. Johnson returned to litigating, generally trying about one large case a year, primarily civil. He also remained active in community service and in politics. From 2001 to 2004, he chaired the Judiciary Committee of the New York City Bar Association, which reviews and rates judicial nominees – federal, state, and local – within New York City. For the 2004 election, Johnson became involved in John Kerry’s presidential campaign, serving as a lawyer and a fundraiser for the campaign.

“I was so disappointed when he lost,” said Johnson. “I couldn’t get out of bed the next morning.”

Despite the painful loss, Johnson continued to work in support of Democratic Party candidates. In June 2006, at a fundraiser he hosted for Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Johnson met then-Senator Barack Obama, a rising star of the party. Over the next few months, the two continued to cross paths – at political fundraisers, at a book signing by Obama – and grew closer. Then, in November 2006, Obama personally recruited Johnson to join his presidential campaign. (Johnson showed me the “While You Were Out” memo for Obama’s phone call to him, with the “Telephoned” and “Please Call Back” boxes checked, and a 312 phone number listed as the return number.)

The rest, as they say, is history. In December 2006, Johnson became one of the first former Clinton Administration officials to “come out” as an Obama supporter. Over the next two years, Johnson performed many roles for the Obama campaign, from fundraising and surrogate TV to lawyering and door-to-door canvassing (in places as varied as Des Moines, Iowa and West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

“It is a truly remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Johnson, “to get to know someone by his first name, and then get to address him as ‘Mr. President.’ I could never repeat that experience.”

After the 2008 election, Johnson served on the Obama transition team, advising on defense matters. On January 8, 2009, President-Elect Obama publicly designated Johnson to be the nominee for General Counsel of the Defense Department. After a fairly swift Senate confirmation, Johnson assumed his current position on February 10, 2009.

During the almost two and a half years that Johnson has served as General Counsel, he has worked on a wide range of important and challenging issues. He played a major role in the successful repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” co-authoring a report (with General Carter Ham) that was praised by the Washington Post for “its honest, thorough and respectful handling of a delicate subject,” and by journalist Andrew Sullivan as “extremely calm and fair” and “one of the most impressive reports I’ve read from a government agency.” (Johnson confided to me that much of the writing style in the report reflects years of training as a Paul Weiss litigation associate.) More recently, Johnson advised the White House about military activities in Libya.

Given the tremendous responsibilities of his job, as well as his familial responsibilities – Johnson is married to Dr. Susan DiMarco, a dentist, and they have two children, Jeh Jr. and Natalie – how does he do it all? As you might expect, time management is critical.

“I budget my time carefully,” Johnson explained. “I’m a very early riser. I wake up before 5 a.m., and I’m at my desk at 6:05 a.m.”

“My days here are much more intense than they were at Paul Weiss,” said Johnson. “At Paul Weiss, I’d spend time thinking about far fewer matters. Here, it’s all meetings, back to back with no white space in between. Some days I complain to my scheduler that I feel like a nail salon!”

Johnson has as many as 12 to 15 meetings a day, generally at the Pentagon or at the White House, which he visits about three times a week. His work day tends to end at around 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. – a 13- to 14-hour day, having started at 6 a.m. And even after he leaves the office, he is on email constantly. But there are limits on how much work he can handle outside the office, because so much of his work is classified; this sometimes requires him to come into the Pentagon at odd hours or on weekends. (Fortunately he has a short commute, under 10 minutes.)

At the same time, according to Johnson, it’s important for busy lawyers to have outlets outside of work. In addition to spending time with his wife and two kids, he enjoys model trains (HO scale), wine tasting, classic R&B – in fact, he has served in the past as a guest DJ on WBGO Newark (88.3 on the FM dial) – and gardening. Yes, gardening. “I deal with high-level counterterrorism issues,” said Johnson, “but I also like to plant impatiens.”

Given the stress of the job and the difficult issues that comprise Johnson’s portfolio – “no easy problems reach me, because if they were easy, they would have been solved already” – burnout would seem to be a real danger. But Johnson is willing to continue serving, at least through the end of President Obama’s first term.

“Every Senate-confirmed presidential appointee should presume four years, but nothing beyond four years,” said Johnson. “Even if he is reelected, we shouldn’t presume that we will be asked to continue serving. We serve at the pleasure of the president.”

Looking ahead to when he eventually concludes his service as General Counsel, what does Johnson see in his future? A judgeship? Elective office?

“My presumption is that I will return to private practice when I’m done,” he said. “This will be it for public service, after three separate stints. I can’t repeat the experience of starting with a man at ground level, going all the way through primary season, the convention, the debates, the national election, the transition, and then, finally, governing.”

Despite the excitement and fulfillment of government service, Johnson does miss certain aspects of private practice. He cited advocacy, especially drafting a brief, then editing it “until it sings”; recruiting lawyers to the firm; and mentoring young associates and summer associates. (Johnson gets to mentor on a smaller scale by working closely with his three special assistants, whom I had the pleasure of meeting: Chris Fonzone, Harvard Law ’07, who clerked for Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson and Justice Stephen Breyer; Michael Negron, Harvard Law ’07, a former Naval officer; and Brodi Kemp, Yale Law ’04, Harvard Ph.D. (Political Science) ’11.)

Johnson also misses the private-sector paycheck: “You have to be a little crazy to go into public service. If you’re a fifty-something partner in a law firm, you have to be a little crazy to go into government. The gap between private sector law firm incomes and what we earn here is getting larger and larger.”

And it’s not just about the benjamins. The vetting process for prospective public servants is more intense and intrusive than ever, in this age of diminishing (or perhaps evolving) notions of privacy.

“In order to survive the vetting, you have to have lived your life in a certain way and be prepared to bare it all in public,” Johnson explained. “You need to pay every tax dollar for every nanny. Always keep them on the books. From the day that I got married, I had a ‘nanny accountant,’ to make sure I was handling these issues correctly.”

“A lot of professionals don’t think this way,” said Johnson. “They have normal, private lives. But I’ve been in public service several times, so I know. You need to lead your life in a certain way, in preparation for the day when it suddenly becomes exposed to the public.”

Once you are being considered for a position, a vetting team will “violate your privacy eight different ways,” said Johnson. You’ll be asked by a young lawyer whom you don’t even know about your health, your mental health, your marital fidelity, your spouse’s health, your spouse’s mental health, your finances – practically nothing is off limits. The inquiries will come from multiple quarters: the Office of Government Ethics, the White House, the FBI, and the Senate (for positions requiring Senate confirmation).

“My SF-278 [financial disclosure form] was made public, and Politico did a story on the huge pay cut I was taking,” said Johnson. “I saw my net worth and income splashed all over Politico. I ended up apologizing to my [Paul Weiss] partners for how information reflecting on the firm’s finances suddenly became so public.”

(Johnson said that he learned his new salary as General Counsel to the Defense Department from Politico as well. “I didn’t even ask how much I’d make in this job before taking it!”)

Despite the challenges of being a public servant, it definitely has its perks and its high points. Your work makes a difference – and you are sometimes recognized for it. On June 14, the U.S. Marine Corps honored Johnson with a sunset parade (which you can find on YouTube; see also the photos below and on subsequent pages).

“How often do you get honored with a parade?” asked Johnson. “There were no parades for us at Paul Weiss.”

At the Marine Corps Sunset Parade in honor of Jeh Johnson.

Notwithstanding the doubts being raised in some quarters about law school and legal careers, Johnson remains fundamentally optimistic about the opportunities available to lawyers. “I believe as much in law as a career as I did before,” said Johnson. “Even more so. I’ve seen all the different things one can do with a law degree.” What’s important, according to Johnson, is to remember what brought you into the law in the first place.

“A lot of people go to law school with the same ambitions I had: public service, a possible career in politics, community service,” he said. “Then they lose that ambition as life progresses, as they take on mortgages, and familial responsibilities.”

“But you shouldn’t lose the original ambition that took you to law school,” Johnson urged. “It is still possible to have that kind of career, a mixture of fulfilling public service and exceptional private practice.”

Achieving success as a lawyer in both public and private practice is not easy. It will require a great deal of hard work, as well as talent and luck. But it is most certainly possible.

Need proof? Just ask Jeh Johnson.

(Additional photographs from my visit to the Pentagon to interview Jeh Johnson appear on subsequent pages.)

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