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Justice and Georgetown: Distinguished Lecturer from Government Sally Q. Yates

October 25, 2017 —

Sally Q. Yates, former Acting U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Deputy Attorney General, joined Georgetown Law for the Fall 2017 Semester as a Distinguished Lecturer from Government. Among other things, she recently spoke to Visiting Professor Hillary Sale's Women and Leadership seminar and gave the Hart Lecture on November 1. We sat down with her for an interview to talk about her career, her life at Georgetown, and the importance of standing up for the rule of law.

You left the Department of Justice in January. How did you connect with Georgetown Law?

Through Professor Howard Shelanski [who previously served in the Obama Administration]. And Dean Treanor as well — about giving the Hart Lecture in November and also about the program that you have here for visitors from government. I felt really privileged to have an opportunity to part of the Georgetown Law experience, and the fall was an ideal time for me to be able to come here and to engage with students and faculty at this institution that has such a long and storied history of robust academic debate and discussion. The opportunity to be with students in an environment in which, it seems, we find ourselves increasingly polarized and sometimes cynical — it's really refreshing to be at a place where the students are not yet cynical. They really are looking at how the law can change the world, and so it's exciting to be part of that. 

What are your roles here? You’re not teaching a class, but you are serving in an advisory capacity for the students? 

I [will speak to] classes here…if the professors feel like I might have something to add to their subject matter. I also want to connect directly with the students. I recently had lunch with the representatives of a number of student organizations. I'm looking forward to having a series of informal lunches with students over the course of the semester where I can hear from them, why they came to law school, what they hope to do after they leave, where they see the intersection of law with social justice in our world right now. I'm really looking forward to those conversations.

What do you hope to teach them, if you could teach them one thing?

They're going to leave Georgetown Law with a unique opportunity. They're going to be attorneys and that means they're going to have the ability to impact the world and impact justice in ways that the average person does not. There are lots of ways to do that, and I'm not suggesting that everybody has to go into public service. But this is a place where their degree comes with a responsibility — to find some way to impact justice in the world for the better. Hopefully, they'll keep their options open. I don't think anybody should have to know what they want to do for the rest of their career while they are still in law school. I certainly changed my mind, even after I was practicing. 

You went to the University of Georgia for your B.A. and J.D. Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

I'd like to say it was an original idea, but the fact of the matter is, I come from a long line of lawyers on both sides of my family. My father, both of my grandfathers, and my grandmother, who was one of the first women admitted to the Georgia bar. She didn't go to law school — she was able to “read” law with an attorney. She passed the bar exam, but she couldn't really practice in the South back in those days. Nobody was hiring a female lawyer. So she was a secretary for my grandfather, who was an attorney and then later a judge. My father and uncle were lawyers.

What did your grandmother say when you decided to go to law school?

I think she was excited about it. Unfortunately, she passed away before I had an opportunity to engage with her in my practice, but she recognized what a different world it was that I would be going into as an attorney. I would have been really frustrated had I been her. She was incredibly bright and she was relegated to the role of being a legal assistant. She wasn’t bitter about that — she was more, that's the way it was, but isn't it a great thing that it's not the way it is anymore? And you, Sally, will have opportunities that I didn’t have. 

You said you changed your mind about your career. When you were in law school, what did you envision yourself doing?

I never thought I wanted to practice criminal law. I didn’t take any criminal law courses, which probably would concern some people given the jobs I ended up having! I thought that I wanted to do commercial civil litigation. I went to a big firm in Atlanta, had a great experience, and went to the U.S. attorney's office after had I been in the firm for a few years — thinking I would return to that same firm. Twenty-seven years later, I was still at the Department of Justice.

I made the move for a variety of reasons — partly for a change, partly because I wanted work that felt like it was more impactful in the world. I was unprepared for just how taken I would be by the special role that you have as a member of the Department of Justice. I got to experience what it feels like to be on what you believe is the right side all the time. You have an opportunity to make communities safer but also to administer justice in a way that engenders the trust of the people that you're serving. That's an added responsibility as well; it doesn't get any better than that if you are going to be a lawyer. I never in a million years thought I was going to be a prosecutor, and then I got there and didn't want to do anything but that. 

What were your some of your career highlights?

I was really fortunate during my time in the U.S. attorney's office to have a variety of different cases and different positions within the office, so I never got bored. I did a lot of public corruption work…all sorts of white collar work and the lead prosecutor on the Olympic bomber case… When I was U.S. attorney, our office was focused on building safer communities. Getting out into the community so that people knew us and came to trust us…working on the prevention side in schools and in communities…doing a [lot] in the prisoner reentry program as well. It really takes all three prongs, prosecution, prevention and reentry, to truly build safer communities. That was exciting and that was a new dimension for our office.

The work that you just did in Washington — standing up for what you believed in with respect to the rule of law and the travel ban — did you ever see yourself in this role? 

I certainly didn’t anticipate that…I thought it was going to an uneventful time, as historically it has been during that transition time. Because it's tradition for the deputy attorney general to serve as the acting attorney general between administrations… I didn't make the decision about the travel ban just in that one moment. It was demanded based on the 27 years I had spent at DOJ before that, and all of the work that I had done prior to that, and the principles to which I tried to adhere and our department adheres. That’s what prepared me for that, but I certainly never expected to need to be prepared for that moment.

You went with Mary McCord (L’90) [now a Georgetown Law Senior Litigator from Practice, formerly Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security] to the White House regarding Michael Flynn — two women. 

I didn't even think about the fact that it was two women going to the White House. In fact, I remember sitting in the attorney general's conference room one time, lots of people were around the table, everybody was leaving and my principal deputy said, Do you realize that I was the only man in the room? I hadn't even noticed that. 

What would you tell students when they’ve got a difficult decision and have to stand up for what they believe in?

It wasn’t something that I was viewing through the prism of “this takes courage.” It was to do my job, this is what I need to do, and I couldn't imagine not doing that. There was a bit of a dilemma over whether to resign or to direct, but resigning I felt like would not be doing my job. It protected me, but it would have not protected the integrity of the Department of Justice. I was the acting attorney general and I needed to do my job.

Where do you think you got those principles? In law school? From your family?

I think we are all a combination of all of those experiences. I will tell you I have tremendous respect for the career men and women at the Department of Justice; they make courageous decisions every day. Sometimes it's bringing a really difficult case, sometimes it's in declining to indict a case that the public may be clamoring for, but it's not the right thing to do. Those folks are making courageous decisions every day. They may not make the headlines like this does. But they are doing that every day.

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