Harold Hongju Koh, the Department of State’s legal adviser, is a leading expert on public and private international law, national security law and human rights. He was dean of Yale Law School from 2004 to 2009 and now is professor of international law on leave from the school. Koh served as assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 1998 to 2001. He graduated from Harvard College, Oxford University and Harvard Law School, and has received 11
honorary degrees and more than 30 awards for his human rights work. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.
What leadership lessons did you learn while working as assistant secretary of state?
(Courtesy of the Department of State) - Harold Koh is the Department of State's legal adviser.
It’s critically important for the head of an office to convey to everyone how important and appreciated their work is and to explain how their contributions relate to the mission. At my State Department jobs, I’ve tried to sketch out our tasks and repeat our guiding principles so everyone can follow them. At the Human Rights Bureau, I told everybody on the first day, “Do not under any circumstances shade the truth about human rights issues.” I told our office that we care about accountability, easing present human rights situations and building democracy for the future, to forestall future human rights abuses.
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.