Sally Yates never wanted to be a lawyer, she told a largely-female Washington, D.C., crowd Thursday, but now she can’t imagine doing anything else.
Yates came from a family of lawyers—even her grandmother was one—but never thought she wanted to be one herself. But she did, and eventually she became one of the most famous lawyers in the country following a fateful 10 days as acting attorney general in January.
It was then that she refused to defend President Donald Trump’s first travel ban executive order. Political consultants and others, including her husband, now want her to run for office. But Yates said that’s not on the radar for the 27-year public servant, who reminded the crowd she had a career before Trump.
“I have never felt drawn to elective office,” Yates told the crowd at the ChIPs Women in Tech, Law and Policy summit. “I still don’t feel drawn to elected office. Running for office is not something I can really see. … I have a hard time picturing that.”
Yates joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta in 1989, after working at King & Spalding for three years. She recalled an older male colleague in the office steered her away from working on organized crime, fearing it would be “a little too rough and tumble” for her, coming from what he called a “silk-stocking firm.”
“He never said the sort of ‘woman thing,’ but that was kind of wrapped up in all of that there,” Yates said.
In the end, though, she said she begrudgingly admitted the colleague did her a favor by pushing her toward white-collar work, where she thrived. She liked the psychological element of the job, which is less about what a defendant did and more about what they were thinking when they did it. For Yates, it’s “intriguing to try to unravel that puzzle.”
She continued to unravel the puzzle, working her way up to become the U.S. attorney and eventually the deputy attorney general. Yates said she’s learned during her distinguished career that safe is not always best. Lawyers are often trained to be risk-adverse. But throughout her tenure at the DOJ, both as a U.S. attorney and at Main Justice, Yates said that openness to taking risks was key.
“Big things rarely happen by taking the safest course,” Yates said.
What’s next for Yates? She said she’s focusing on her students as a distinguished lecturer at Georgetown University Law Center for now.
But Yates quickly followed by saying she’s likely not a “lifelong” academic.
“I kind of like being in the arena more than teaching about it,” Yates quipped.