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Departure Memo Of The Day: Jeh Johnson Parting With Paul Weiss

Jeh Johnson

Last year was a pretty great one for partners of Paul Weiss. And we’re not talking just about profits per partner, although we expect they’ll be robust once again.

In June, Roberta Kaplan scored a big win in the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor. Representing Edie Windsor, a widow who got hit with hefty taxes when her wife passed away, Kaplan got section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act struck down. Just yesterday, we declared Robbie Kaplan our 2013 Lawyer of the Year.

But she wasn’t the only PW partner who had an exciting 2013. In December, Jeh Johnson left the firm to become our nation’s fourth Secretary of Homeland Security.

On the morning of December 19, Johnson sent around a wonderful departure memo, which we’d like to share with you now….

I was not at all surprised to see an inspiring departure memo coming from Jeh Johnson. He’s an inspiring figure, especially for lawyers who aspire to public service. If you doubt this, just read my 2011 profile of Johnson, back when he served as general counsel of the Defense Department — a position that prepared him superbly for his new post as DHS Secretary, by exposing him to some of the most important national security issues of our time.

I was also not surprised when Johnson was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as Homeland Security Secretary last October. Even though Johnson had told me that he expected his service as GC to the DoD to be his last stint in public service — “this will be it for public service, after three separate stints” — I doubted that someone of his talents and experience could stay out of government for long. This was especially true given Johnson’s long friendship with President Obama, whom he backed for president way back in 2006.

Johnson, however, might have been surprised when asked by the president to serve the country yet again. From Johnson’s Paul Weiss departure memo (reprinted in full on the next page):

Part of me is still in disbelief. I did not expect this assignment, nor did I realistically think I would ever ascend to such a position at such a level of government.

Before you dismiss this as false modesty — Johnson was a Paul Weiss partner who had previously served as general counsel of the Defense Department, general counsel of the Air Force (under President Clinton), and an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York — consider what Johnson refers to in his memo as “the arc of history”:

My mother is a native Washingtonian. Her father, aunts and uncles were postal workers. They were second class citizens in fact and in law in a segregated city, but they were patriotic Americans. My mother still remembers the excitement of seeing FDR drive past her Maryland Avenue home with a Secret Service chase car not far behind. Within her 80-year life, she will now see her son also become a protectee of the Secret Service. I think about all this today, but my amazement is tempered by knowledge of the huge problems and responsibilities I am about to inherit.

Indeed. Please, Secretary Johnson, do something about the train wreck we call TSA. Protecting the homeland is DHS’s first responsibility, but it must be balanced against other values, including privacy and efficiency.

When I visited Jeh Johnson at the Pentagon, I was struck by his close relationships with the people who work for him (or, less hierarchically, the people who work with him). So I wasn’t surprised to see him give props to his assistant, Sarah Shacklett (whom I had the pleasure of meeting):

By tradition, I will pay tribute to my assistant, Sarah Shacklett. Sarah came to Paul Weiss with me from the Pentagon and she will leave with me to join DHS. She has been a terrific addition to the DC office for the short time she was here. On Tuesday she took a message from the President while I was out of the office. I asked her, “What’s that like? I can’t imagine the pressure you must have felt to track me down.” Sarah responded, “It’s what I’m good at, sir.”

Serving his country: it’s what he’s good at (among many other things, of course). Congratulations to Jeh Johnson on his latest post, and best of luck to him as he tackles the challenges ahead.

(We’ve given you mere excerpts from a remarkable departure memo. Flip to the next page to read the full memo, which includes some lovely praise for Paul Weiss — one of our 12 Top Firms To Work For — and its commitments to public service and diversity.)

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