Q:COVINGTON AND BURLING is the bluest of the blue chip firms here in Washington. It's the oldest, it's the biggest. It's the most prestigious. At one time or other, it's probably represented all of the major corporations in America. That's who makes up the bulk of its clients. You say that you're not deciding to enlist in Covington and Burling for life. But you did decide to go to work for a firm like that for a least the next couple of years. Why did you make that choice rather than some of your brethren (Supreme Court) clerks who are working for public interest firms or they're working for public defender's organizations. Why did you make the choice that you made?
A: The main reason that I went there is because I wanted to do international stuff. But they also do as much pro bono work as is done in town.
Q: Isn't that a little bit of expiation of guilt and atonement on the part of people who spend 90 percent or more of their time representing corporate clients making sure that two gigantic companies can merge with each other into a more gigantic company, or making sure that a big company can wend its way around the government regulation to get a product on a market, or to avoid a law suit or something like that? You can invoke pro bono work but that's a pretty small percentage of what Covington and Burling or any law firm does.
A: Sure, but these things are all being socially productive. I think if I have goals, one is to be educated in the practice of law and to do things which I think are worthwhile and interesting. I think that the range of practice that Covington has, I think it includes, I know we get a lot of pro bono, but even if I didn't do very much pro bono, I think it would be both interesting and educational and socially productive and maybe some of it would not be. And if I was working on that I probably wouldn't be unhappy.
Q: Well isn't some of it socially unproductive?
A: Yeah, I think any law firm does stuff which someone else could call socially unproductive. I mean you could call people working in a public defender's service -- exclusion of evidence (getting evidence of a defendant's guilt excluded from the trial because of a policeman's legally faulty search procedures, for example) -- you could say that that's socially unproductive.
Q: But as you say, we can say it's socially productive because we're promoting justice and constitutional rights in society overall over perhaps retribution in that particular case.
A: Right. But I think that that's, it's a judgment call. I just don't think it's all that black and white.
Q: What sort of things do you expect to be doing that are worthwhile in the greater-good sense?
A: You mean at Covington.
Q: Yes, at Covington.
A: I think, I would hope that pretty much everything I do is worthwhile in the greater- good sense.
Q: You want to be doing international work. Say Covington has a client who is a Japanese company who is accused of dumping goods here. How is that socially productive?
A: I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. If it's a Japanese company that wants to invest in America -- and there's nothing wrong with them doing it -- they still need lawyers to help them do it. Or if an American company wants to invest in Japan or in Korea they still need lawyers who will help them do it. I think to help them do it is socially productive. I guess I'm not prejudging what's going to happen because you'll encounter different clients and I suppose they'll ask you to do different things and each time you'll make a judgment as to whether you think it's within your role as a lawyer to do it. But I think that I would not go to Covington if I expected that I would be asked to do things that I didn't think I should do.
Q: Covington had a case a few years back, a company was producing bread that it called high fiber and it turned out that the fiber was actually wood pulp that was put into the bread. And the company spent a lot of time and money to pay Covington to represent it to defend itself on charges that that was false advertising. How do you draw the line about what you think is moral to represent a company doing and what you think isn't?
A: Well, I am just beginning this whole thing. I've never represented any client except for the two judges I worked for and all I can say is what I've done in the past. Which is I tried to do what they asked me to do within the bounds of what I thought was right and fair and reasonable. And I would do the same thing again, but it would depend really on the facts of the case.
Q: But if you got a client that has done something that you believe is bad, and they ask you to defend them against a government agency or whoever is suing them for doing whatever bad thing they've allegedly done. Is it up to you to decide whether to represent them or not? Or do you just become a hired gun, representing anybody, no matter what?
A: Well, gee, I think that you make a decision as to where you're going to put yourself. The first decision that you make is, can I put myself in a place where I think that what they'll be asking me to do I will not only do but enjoy doing and want to do and feel comfortable doing? And having made that decision then you just take it one case at a time and I don't feel like I'm a hired gun. If there's something that I'm asked to do and I don't want to do it, I won't do it and I will say it's because I don't feel comfortable taking the case.
Q: You can't say that very often and make partner.
A: How do you know?
Q: Because if a law firm was full of lawyers who were too morally pure to dirty their hands with defending corporations who had done bad things it wouldn't get any business because its lawyers wouldn't be willing to do a lot of the business.
A: I don't know. I think that, well what you seem to be saying to me is that lawyers who represent corporations are not ethical and I don't think that's true. And I think you can represent a corporation in an ethical way the same way you can represent a criminal defendant in an ethical way. And if you're an ethical person you will try to take each case and do it as ethically as possible and if you can't live with the idea of representing an entire class of people because you think they're all behaving unethically then you don't do it. But suppose you worked for the public defender service. Then you're asked to constantly represent people who are probably guilty. But you say to yourself, well, they deserve to have a lawyer and --
Q: Just like a corporation deserves to have a lawyer?
A: Yeah, I think corporations deserve to have lawyers. I think individuals deserve to have lawyers. Criminal defendants deserve to have lawyers. Because that's the way our society runs.
Q: You talk about this as sort of a two-year or a few-year tryout for yourself. It strikes me that is somewhat of a copout along the same lines as people who go to law school and say, don't worry, even though I'm in law school I'm going to get out and I'm going to work for the ACLU.
A: I never --
Q: All my friends . . . what happens, I think, for the vast majority of them is they do decide to go to work for corporate law firms because that's where the jobs are, that's where the money is, and whether we think that's a sellout or not, that's what they decide to do. And in the same way, people, I think, fool themselves a little bit when they decide to go to work for corporate law firms to say I am not thinking of this as a career. I'm thinking of it just as a two-year tryout. But in the same way you go to law school and you end up being a corporate lawyer, you go to a corporate law firm and you end up staying there. That is your life. In seven years or 20 years, do you get the sense that that would make you happy and that you'll still be coming in in the morning and saying this is what you want to do?
A: Well, what will you be doing in seven years?
Q: Hopefully working for this newspaper. And yes, I think the answer is that I will be coming in and saying that I'm happy and excited and feeling like I'm doing a valuable thing to be sitting down and writing articles.
A: If I'm there in seven years, if I'm there in 20 years, it will be because I'm happy. And it will be because what I'm doing there makes me happy. And it will be because I have found something in what I do there that rewards me so much that I have decided that's what I want to do with my life. And if it is because I have also changed, and my values have also changed so that I think that's what I ought to do with my life, so be it. But I don't plan on being unhappy in seven or 20 years. And I think in seven years I may be teaching. I may be at Covington and Burling. I may be practicing law somewhere else. I may be in the government. And I assure you that I will be happy.
Q: You were a physics major when you started out in college and yet you wound up going to law school. What happened?
A: Well, my parents were Asian and they thought that it was riskier for a kid of Asian parents to do a profession that involved using the English language every day rather than doing a lot of numbers. (But) one day when I was going to the lab, I met a guy and he was going to an East Asian relations class, and suddenly that just seemed much more interesting and so I went to that. (We) all wanted to do science at the start. There are six kids in my family. The first daughter did physical chemistry. My next two brothers did medicine. And I think one majored in physics and one majored in chemistry. In The New York Times you'd always see Nobel mathematics prizes won by some Chinese guy or something like that. Sort of . . . this is an area in which you didn't have to worry.
Q: Is there discrimination against Asians in the social sciences? In fields like law?
A: No, I don't think so. It's just that they haven't really gotten into those areas. I think it's partly because the East Asian legal system is different. It's more consentual and less adversarial. The idea of aggressively arguing your point is inimical to what I learned was what an Asian kid was supposed to do. I mean at home, especially when you're in public, you don't get up and say, that's completely wrong. You silently disagree and then afterwards you get the person and say, don't you think it would be better if . . . I'm not going to tell anybody else, but can't we work something out on this? And I think for that reason I thought of lawyers as being very adversarial and I thought that was contrary to my personality.
Q: How did you get from East Asian studies to law school?
A: It was a two-step process. The first question is how I got from physics to social sciences. As I started to look at myself more I started realizing that the unique feature of my personality was that I was a Korean person, born of Korean parents, born in America, and that like it or not I had this perspective of the two different cultures and that (they) did not understand each other at all.
Q: In what way don't they understand each other?
A: When I wrote my senior thesis, a lot of it was about interaction between Korean and American businesses and how they deal with one another. They have a different notifion of what "contract" means. Contract in America means writing something down, hammering something out and putting it on paper. To the Koreans this is offensive. The Korean system is that you're bound morally to agree -- and then what you've agreed on evolves. Where in America you are bound by what you have agreed to and if what you have agreed to evolves then you write it down again. The interesting thing was that when I was with Koreans I felt very American because they didn't seem to understand why the Americans did the things they did. And when I was with Americans they would comment about these Koreans won't put anything down on paper. And I'd say well you have to understand that that's the way it works in Korea. And so I found myself saying to both sides well that's the way it works on the other side.
At a certain point I thought, well, if I go into physics or something like that, it wouldn't matter if I was Korean or American or what. The thing I thought was the central feature of my personality would be irrelevant to my profession. And I thought if I go into either U.S.-East Asian relations or law or diplomacy or something like that it would be doing something between these two cultures. That's what got me from physics to social science. Then the question is what got me from social sciences to law. Well, I thought I could go to diplomacy; I could be a foreign service officer. But the problem with that is that you enter at a low grade and you're sent all around the world and you can't really pick your country until much later. Then some people told me that if I wanted to do East Asian stuff I would probably be kept away from it, actually, because they'd be worried that I wasn't primarily loyal to America or something like that. (It) seemed to me, if I'm going there so I can do something involving mediation between East Asia and the U.S. or just internationally generally, it would be ironic if I couldn't do the very thing I wanted to do. So I started to fade that out. Then I thought, well, I'll go to graduate school in East Asian studies and I got this fellowship to go to Oxford and I actually went thinking I was going to write a thesis which elaborated on my undergraduate thesis about U.S.-East Asian relations. When I got there I found that nobody in England cared about U.S. and Korean relations. In fact, it suddenly seemed like a somewhat narrow and more passive profession than I wanted. . . . Someone who is observing these things, commenting about them, not really participating . . . which is what I wanted to do.
Then I thought, well, the third area is to do law. If I become an international lawyer or if I represent Asian clients to Americans or vice versa, I'll be doing some sort of private diplomacy and if I wanted to I could go into government later. And so I think it was with that idea that I went to law school.
Q: You talked about the difference between Korean and American cultures and about the different legal systems. . . . Does (ours) work? Do we get justice done?
A: I don't think we get the truth all the time but I think what people agree on here is the process and the roles people play. And that, the ironic thing about this is that in East Asia, the lawyers play much less of a clearly defined role. The main thing (here) is that people agree to abide by what the judge does. One judge said to me something about the great thing about being a judge is that your role really is to do what's right and also what's consistent with the law, and to try to meld those two. So I think being a judge is a good job -- if you can get it.
Q: You went to Harvard College, you went to Oxford. You were on the Harvard Law Review. You clerked for a judge on the District of Columbia Circuit, which is among the most prestigious appeals courts in the country. You clerked for the Supreme Court. You're going to the most prestigious law firm in Washington. You've done everything absolutely right. How does that feel?
A: I feel lucky. But at this point I haven't done anything. I haven't accomplished anything except go to school. That's the danger. If we're the generation that will die with our options open, then are you just building credentials so that you can do something that you never actually accomplish.
Harold Hongju Koh, 27, is a summa cum laude 1975 graduate of Harvard College, where he studied government and international relations. As a Marshall Scholar he received top honors at Oxford University, where he studied politics, philosophy and economics. He is a 1980 graduate of Harvard Law School.
Since graduating, Koh has clerked for Judge Malcolm R. Wilkey of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and, this year, for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun. In 1979, he was a summer associate at Covington and Burling, the Washington law firm he will join in November. Ruth Marcus, who will enter her second year at Harvard Law School this fall, is a summer intern on the national staff of The Washington Post.