By the end of the first day, I had a computer, a badge, and (in a photo finish) a working email address. My supervisors told me this was a major victory, deserving of celebration, and encouraged me to go home and savor it.
That first day as an intern with the Office of the Legal Adviser (“L,” for short) in the U.S. Department of State stood in stark contrast to my first day at the private sector law firm where I spent the first half of my 2L summer. The operation there had been slick—I had a computer, badge, and working email in the first five minutes, not to mention a buffet breakfast.
Legal academia endows the federal government with an outsized importance. We’re taught that representing the United States comes with a certain gravitas, even glamor, that private sector work does not match. But after my first few days, my initial experiences did not live up to this expectation.
Thinking back on it, I’m almost ashamed of that initial reaction. The legal questions I tackled in L were novel, complex issues of international and federal law. There’s almost no chance I could have done that work anywhere else. And the people I worked with were tremendously smart, engaging lawyers, possessed of a good humor and an earnest desire to do the best they could for their country.
For those interested in international law, though, L is not invariably going to be the right place to be. Three types of people who might think about looking elsewhere spring to mind in particular.
1) The Committed Internationalist. It is important to remember that L represents the interests of the United States, first and foremost. The United Nations may be a better place for those interested in advancing an internationalist agenda.
2) The Activist. Not only do the standard caveats about making change from within the system apply to working in L, the office is not even supposed to make policy at all.
3) The Purist. Some degree of compromise will always be necessary to fulfilling the mission of the government.
Put simply, the most salient lesson that I drew from my time at State was that government service is, indeed, service. Perhaps this is obvious to others, but it did not come immediately to me. Serving the government is about learning to set aside your preferences when they conflict with the democratically expressed will of the people. It’s about learning the ways you can make incremental change from the inside of a massive institution. It’s about taking a truly systemic and communitarian point of view.
In a profession that teaches first and foremost the advocacy of an individual client’s needs and desires, having the opportunity (indeed, the obligation) to think on a bigger scale is incredibly daunting, but incredibly bracing too.
Reedy Swanson is a 3L from Knoxville, Tennessee. A Double Hoo, Reedy spent the year before law school as a Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. He has so far failed to persuade any of his professors to turn their exam into a karaoke contest, but he’s not giving up.