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Department of Homeland Security General Counsel Joe Whitley says any lawyer who has started a law office can understand the challenges he faces. Whitley, confirmed by the Senate in July, is building the infant Cabinet agency’s legal division. He’s creating a new general counsel’s office. He’s also coordinating the legal departments that existed in the 22 agencies that came under the department’s umbrella when it was born in November 2002. That means Whitley, a former Alston & Bird partner who served as acting associate attorney general in the first Bush administration, is in charge of about 1,500 lawyers in DHS component agencies such as the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. If Whitley headed a law firm, it would rank among the nation’s largest. Whitley is playing a major role in the largest government reorganization in 50 years. But he’s not letting any of this scare him: He talks about the challenges that he’s faced getting the legal department up and running and how DHS lawyers have been getting the work done. He was interviewed last week by reporter Marie Beaudette. Below is an excerpt of that conversation. What have been your biggest challenges since taking over the Office of General Counsel? The challenges are multiple, but getting acquainted with the client is one of them. The regulatory function of the department, standing that up, is a second. And third is the coordination/communication function that we serve, making sure that our legal product is consistent. The client inside the Department of Homeland Security can have many faces. It can be someone who’s in charge of a component, it can be an undersecretary, and, obviously, Secretary [Tom] Ridge is our principal client. If the client does not have the same mind, or we’re not in front of the client, then we’re not in a position to serve that client. So we try to build our provision of services along a model not unlike that of a law firm. We’ve been working aggressively to build a set of regulations to support the Department of Homeland Security. We don’t have a history of regulation except through the 22 agencies that became a part of the Department of Homeland Security. [It's] important that we create regulations that are transparent, that are cost-sensitive, and that are readable and understandable to the public because our mission is too important for our message not to be clearly communicated. The third challenge is coordination with the other lawyers here in the department and communicating with them to achieve consistency in the provision of our legal product. What has surprised you since you took over as general counsel? One of the things that has surprised me to some extent is the breadth of the responsibilities of this office. We are involved in many different aspects of this department, from information analysis to science and technology, to border protection, to issues concerning citizenship. So not a day goes by that there’s not a new item on the list that I haven’t thought about. The world that I came from was private practice, and [I spent] a pretty significant amount of time as a public servant in the Department of Justice and as a state prosecutor. So I was accustomed to being in an established institution, one that had a history and a culture. We are building a culture and a history every day in the Department of Homeland Security. Is the Office of General Counsel fully staffed? We are staffed at a level that accomplishes the mission that we need to accomplish. We are still building on the staffing, but I feel good about our responsiveness. There are a lot of long days and weekends that we have to work. What we’re doing now is continuing the staffing process on a daily basis. I don’t want our lawyers to have to work weekends or late into the evening, but they’re all motivated. They want to be here because they feel this is a place they can make a real difference. Sometimes I have to tell them that they need to take a break. We had over 1,500 applications for the [65] positions we had, and routinely, whenever I go out to give a speech or give a talk, someone walks up to me and says, “I’d love to find a way to work for your department.” I want to embed my attorneys into the operations of the clients. I plan on having attorneys right there, real time, working with the clients on issues they’re dealing with. They’ll be reporting to me, part of the counsel’s office, but nonetheless, we’ll be closer to the client. What matters has your office been handling? The number of regulations we’ve dealt with is substantial. In fact, it’s my understanding that the staffing for us at the [Office of Management and Budget] in our regulatory function is probably twice as many people than deal with the Department of Justice. Another significant thing we’ve done is to help the department in its interaction with Congress. There have been over 150 circumstances in which we’ve provided testimony since March to the Hill. We are a recent congressional creation, the first new department created in the last 50 years of this magnitude, so we are working aggressively with our Office of Legislative Affairs and others in the department to help with testimony. Another significant area has been our contracting and procurement authority and our grant function, all of which deal with the distribution of money to a private company or concern, and the distribution of money in the form of grants to state and local governments. So we have been part and parcel of that process with the various components of the department that deal with those functions. What are your priorities as general counsel? I live this job, for one thing. It’s like any law practice position. But I suppose what’s unique about us is that we had to do it in such a short period of time, and I’m very pleased with our progress. So one of the priorities for me going forward is to continue to bring in the kind of quality professionals that we’re bringing in to staff our office to make sure we support the mission of the secretary and the department. What are your goals for the coming year? This has been a year that’s not like any other year in my professional career — every office I’ve ever walked into before has been fully staffed. This [coming] year, our goal will be to fully staff the office. We’ll be moving some of our attorneys to our headquarter location [on Nebraska Avenue] to be closer to our clients. The continuing focus on regulations will be a process we will continue to deal with in the coming year. We are evaluating the creation of regions around the country for the Department of Homeland Security. It’s important that Homeland Security be accessible to people in communities where they have been impacted by disasters or other events. One of my goals is to shake the hands of more lawyers in our field offices who are daily doing the work — whether it’s in immigration court, whether they’re out dealing with a FEMA-related matter, whether they’re out dealing with a citizenship issue, or whether they’re a Coast Guard lawyer or a Secret Service lawyer. This is every lawyer’s goal, and it probably will never be accomplished, but it is always on my Christmas wish list: how to achieve a more proactive relationship with the client so that we will be less reactive in our approach to the issues. Sometimes events happen without us knowing about it, and so we plan to make sure we are aggressive about working with our clients and responding to issues and concerns. Short of reading their minds, we’ll be closer to the client during the coming year with more attorneys. Long-term goals? We sometimes think maybe days or weeks ahead, but months are sometimes optional. My goal has always been to leave the place I’ve been in better than I’ve found it. We’re creating a general counsel’s office that will be on par with the other general counsel’s offices at the other major departments.

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