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?

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? 

Harold Koh is the Department of State's legal adviser. (Courtesy of the Department of State)

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?

What events or people shaped you as a leader?

I’ve had tremendous luck in my choice of bosses and role models. My father and mother and siblings are all extraordinary people. I clerked for two judges, Malcolm Wilkey and Harry Blackmun, who were heroes of mine. I’ve worked for Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton. This is a wonderful group of people to be associated with. My first boss, Malcolm Wilkey, an extremely self-confident man, would be dissenting alone among 11 judges, completely undaunted. I’ll never forget when I recommended he vote a certain way. He did and everyone voted against him. He said, “Well, I guess I’ll have to persuade the rest of them.” Five flipped to our side. That showed me that someone who really believes his position can attract other people’s views.

Justice Blackmun was the hardest worker I ever saw. Nothing was beneath his attention. Many Supreme Court cases involve people who can’t pay the filing fees. Most people throw those cases away, but Justice Blackmun read them all and was deeply moved. Here’s one of the most powerful guys in the country and he empathized with the little person, the outsider. This was a powerful lesson. He didn’t get onto the Supreme Court until he was 61 and he just kept growing. That someone who has had such a successful life ends up in the highest court in the land, still learning things and changing his views and seeing the world more clearly is an amazing lesson to carry into your mature years.

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