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The creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is the biggest reorganization of the federal government in a half century. And one of the key architects of the new agency is its first-ever GC, Joe Whitley, who’s been on the job for eight months. A former Alston & Bird partner, Whitley previously served as acting associate attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration. His first task at DHS has been to assemble a 65-attorney general counsel’s office from scratch. He’s also had to coordinate the work of about 1,500 lawyers at the 22 existing agencies that were merged into DHS, including the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). Whitley recently talked with Marie Beaudette, a reporter at Legal Times (a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel) about what it’s like to oversee a legal staff that, if it were a law firm, would rank among the nation’s largest. Legal Times: What have been your biggest challenges since taking over the Office of General Counsel? Joe Whitley: Getting acquainted with the client is one. The regulatory function of the department � standing that up � is 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 [agency]. It can be an undersecretary. Obviously, Secretary [Tom] Ridge is our principal client. If the client does not have the same mind [as we do], 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. LT: What has surprised you since you took over as general counsel? JW: The breadth of the responsibilities of this office. We are involved in many different aspects, from information analysis to science and technology, to border protection, to issues concerning citizenship. Not a day goes by that there’s not a new item on the list that I haven’t thought about. LT: Is your office fully staffed? JW: We are staffed at a level that accomplishes the mission that we need to accomplish. We are still building the staff, but I feel good about our responsiveness. . . . 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 [in the general counsel's office]. 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.” LT: What matters has your office been handling? JW: The number of regulations we’ve dealt with is substantial. . . . Another significant thing we’ve done is to help the department in its interaction with Congress. There have been over 150 circumstances since March in which we’ve provided testimony to the Hill. . . . Another significant area has been our contracting and procurement authority and our grant function. LT: What are your goals for this year? JW: To fully staff the office. [Also] we’ll be moving some of our attorneys to our headquarters location [on Nebraska Avenue] to be closer to our clients. The focus on regulations will be [another] process we will continue to deal with in the coming year. . . . One of my goals is to shake the hands of more lawyers in our field offices who are doing the daily 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.

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