Jan 25 • 43M

From C Student To Cabinet Official: An Interview With Secretary Jeh Johnson

Former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, now back at Paul, Weiss, reflects on his illustrious career and offers inspiration and advice.

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David Lat
Original Jurisdiction, a podcast about law and the legal profession, features host David Lat interviewing some of the most interesting, influential, and important people in the world of law. It's the companion podcast to Lat's Substack newsletter of the same name. You can follow David on Twitter (@DavidLat) or email him at davidlat@substack.com, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at davidlat.substack.com.
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Welcome to Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, and you can email me at davidlat@substack.com. This is a reader-supported publication; you can subscribe by clicking on the button below. Thanks!

Jeh Johnson, currently co-head of the Cybersecurity and Data Protection practice at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, has had a truly remarkable career in law and public service. Over the past four decades, he has gone back and forth between Paul Weiss, one of the nation’s leading law firms, and the federal government. He has served as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (1989-1991), General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force (1998-2001), General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2009-2012), and finally, Secretary of Homeland Security (2013-2017).

I first met Jeh (pronounced “Jay”) Johnson when he was GC of the Department of Defense (“DoD”) and I profiled him for Above the Law. At the time, he told me he thought it would be his last position in public service. But President Barack Obama had other ideas: in 2013, he asked Johnson to join his Cabinet as Secretary of Homeland Security. From December 2013 until January 2017, Johnson led the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), a sprawling agency with some 22 components and 230,000 employees, and helped keep the United States safe.

Remembering fondly our 2011 conversation, and eager to hear about his time as a Cabinet official, I reached out to Secretary Johnson late last year to invite him on the podcast. He kindly agreed, and in our conversation last month, we discussed his being an academic “late bloomer”; what he’s most proud of from his time in public life (interestingly enough, not a specific success like the Osama bin Laden operation or the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell); and his advice on mentorship (specifically, how to be a good mentee).

My timing for posting this episode turned out to be excellent: just yesterday, DHS unveiled Secretary Johnson’s official portrait, a tribute to his service to the Department and to the nation. Congratulations to Secretary Johnson on this honor, and thanks to him for his long and dedicated service to our country.

Show Notes:

Prefer reading to listening? A transcript of the entire episode appears below.

Sponsored by:

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Then-Secretary Jeh C. Johnson, ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange in October 2015 (photo by Andrew Burton via Getty Images).

Two quick notes:

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David Lat: Hello, and welcome to the Original Jurisdiction podcast. I’m your host David Lat, author of a Substack newsletter about law and the legal profession also named Original Jurisdiction, which you can read and subscribe to by visiting davidlat.substack.com.

You’re listening to the tenth episode of this podcast, recorded on Tuesday, January 10. I post episodes every other Wednesday.

I’d like to begin by thanking this podcast’s sponsor, NexFirm. NexFirm helps BigLaw attorneys become founding partners.  To learn more about how NexFirm can help you launch your firm, call 212-292-1000 or email careerdevelopment@nexfirm.com.

My guest today is Secretary Jeh Johnson, who served in the Obama Administration as the fourth U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, from 2013 to 2017. His service as DHS Secretary was the capstone to a long and distinguished career in public service, which included serving as General Counsel of the Department of Defense, General Counsel of the Air Force, and an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He has gone back and forth between government service and Paul, Weiss, one of the nation’s leading law firms, where he today serves as co-head of the Cybersecurity and Data Protection Practice. He has received numerous awards and accolades over his long career, as well as 12 honorary degrees.

This was actually not my first interview of Secretary Johnson, whom I profiled back in 2011 when I was still at Above the Law. I went down to D.C. to interview him at the Pentagon, back when he was general counsel to the Department of Defense, and interviewing him was a highlight of my years at Above the Law. At the time, he told me he thought that serving as GC of the Defense Department would be his last stint in public service—but that was before President Obama asked him to serve as Homeland Security Secretary.

Of course I wanted to hear about his life and career in the decade-plus since our last interview, including his service as a Cabinet officer. So I reached out to Secretary Johnson late last year to invite him on the podcast, and I was thrilled when he agreed.

Without further ado, here’s my interview of Secretary Jeh Johnson.

DL: Secretary Johnson, thank you so much for joining me. I’m honored to have you on the podcast.

Jeh Johnson: David, I have always enjoyed our discussions and your interviews. So when you emailed me to ask for this, I was happy to accept.

DL: Since we last spoke, you have had a new role, of course, serving in the Cabinet as Secretary of Homeland Security. But to go back to the beginning, can you tell us a bit about what your childhood and upbringing were like? I understand that maybe you were not an overachiever in your early educational career?

JJ: To say I was not an overachiever is an understatement. I was in high school a D and C student. A C was a gift in my house. When I brought home a C on my report card, I felt like I had a reprieve until the next semester. I was not motivated academically. I lacked role models except for my immediate family.

I was convinced that I was destined to be the left fielder for the New York Mets, therefore I didn't need to study. And so you're talking to someone, David, who has today 12 or 13 honorary degrees, but never successfully completed beyond tenth grade math. I took ninth grade math in ninth grade and flunked it. I retook ninth grade math in tenth grade. I took tenth grade math in eleventh grade, and I took eleventh grade math in twelfth grade and flunked the New York State Regents.

Somehow I got into college, and I started to excel my sophomore year at Morehouse College. Morehouse College was an inspiration for me. When I came in, I started as a D student, and I left an A student.

DL: You did have a very distinguished academic background in your family. I believe your grandfather was president of Fisk [University]. What do you think explains why you were a late bloomer?

JJ: That's a good question. Sometimes—and I tell this to younger parents—sometimes it takes a decade for your children to finally hear you. My education was a huge value in my father's family, and it was something very important to my mother's family—my mother's work ethic, her family's work ethic, their school ethic. It used to really drive my mother crazy when I was such a C or D student.

But then as I got older, I inherited their value set, and I'm pretty much as they are today, and I'm probably imposing it on my kids. So sometimes it takes a long time to finally hear the messages that your parents conveyed to you.

I was indeed a late bloomer, and though my family was of a certain background, we lived in upstate New York in a predominantly white community, so I was not surrounded by lots of extended family. It wasn't until I got to Morehouse College that I really began to see my own full potential. And it was at that point when I began to think about law, public service, as a career.

DL: I'm curious, since this is definitely a topic in the news with, of course, a lot of debate over higher education and things of that nature: what role did Morehouse play in helping you become the success that you are today, and did it have anything to do with Morehouse being an HBCU [Historically Black College and University], or do you think that wasn't really relevant?

JJ: I think it had everything to do with the fact that Morehouse was an HBCU. For context, we're talking now mid-1970s, and my father—you mentioned my grandfather was president of Fisk, and my father grew up on the campus of Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee—he had the idea that it would be good for me, given where I was in school as a 17-year-old in a predominantly white community in upstate New York, to spend four of my formative years at an HBCU, and it's one of the best decisions my parents ever made on my behalf.

I went to Morehouse, and ambition is contagious there, surrounded by other Black men of purpose, ambition, drive, energy. When I got to the campus of Morehouse in 1975, the most famous graduate of Morehouse College, Martin Luther King, class of 1948, had been dead for only seven years. There were members of the faculty at Morehouse in the 1970s who had taught him in the 1940s. Martin Luther King III was in my class. Martin Luther King Senior would preach sermons at Morehouse, and it was impossible to not become inspired in that environment.

And the other thing about Morehouse in that period, in the late 1970s, when I got there, was it was still pretty much a Southern Baptist school, and the student body was represented principally from the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. By the time I left in 1979, it turned out that a whole lot of other Black families had the same idea my father did. And so the student body at Morehouse became a national student body, and the parking lot was filled with cars with license plates from California, Washington DC, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan. It had become a national school because at that period, parents were realizing that “maybe an HBCU would be right for my son,” and it was certainly right for me—not right for everybody, but certainly right for me, given where I was at that stage of my development. It's one of the best things I ever did, and a lot of who I am today I credit Morehouse College.

DL: You mentioned earlier that it was during your years at Morehouse that you developed a possible interest in law as a career?

JJ: Correct. Everybody has a moment when they have their political awakening. Though I was a lackadaisical student, the year of my political awakening was 1968, when I was 10 going on 11. A lot happened in the year 1968. It was a very consequential year: Vietnam, the Tet Offensive, the King assassination, the Robert Kennedy assassination, LBJ withdrawing from the race, the riots at the Democratic Convention, the election of Richard Nixon. It was a presidential election year. I was fascinated by all of it, culminating in Apollo 8, the first men to orbit the moon, in December of 1968. So I became aware of the larger world around me, and I realized a few years later that I thought I wanted to be part of it, either by going into politics or public service.

Law seemed to be the best vehicle for doing that, so I developed an interest in law school while I was in college. I thought I wanted to go into politics. By the time I left Morehouse and got into Columbia Law School, Biglaw also became a fascination of mine. And so by the time I finished law school, I had these twin objectives of going into public service and going to a big law firm, and the firm that I knew about, from this article your audience can't see when I'm holding up and showing you [on Zoom], but it's a New York Times story from 1976 about this law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, & Garrison.

It's a profile of Paul, Weiss. My father knew I was becoming interested in law school. I was home from college on Christmas break my sophomore year, and he showed me that article, and it was a story about a law firm that was involved in Democratic Party politics and that had these celebrity clients and celebrity partners.

And the one line in this article, David, that I read then 46 years ago and never forgot—first impressions are often unshakable—was this line: “On many levels—the celebrity of its clients, the high proportion of government officials and agencies it has represented, and the frequency with which its partners move in and out of government service—Paul, Weiss is as close as any New York City law firm to the public consciousness.” That was my first impression of this law firm long before I ever set foot here, and that has been the standard to which I’ve held this firm, and looking back on it, this has been the model for my own career as a Paul, Weiss lawyer.

DL: I totally agree with your description of Paul, Weiss. I think it in some ways has a very “DC” approach to these things. I feel that DC firms really value public-sector and government experience, but it seems that a lot of law firms in New York have this approach of basically hiring so-called “lifers” where they pick 'em up as summer associates, they become partner, they spend their whole career there, and so I don't really know if many New York law firms have the approach that Paul, Weiss does to valuing public and government service and having people like yourself who have done multiple stints in the firm, and then out of the firm.

JJ: That is probably true, and as you know as well as I do, David, the legal market has changed a lot since I got out of law school in 1982. And you're right, we are not a Washington law firm, though we now have a very active and busy Washington office that consists of people who've been in government service.

You know, my model for being a New York lawyer is Cy Vance or Ted Sorensen, people who were in government in Washington, and I have, I think, a Washington-style practice today, though I'm very much a New Yorker. I couldn't wait to return to New York when I left Secretary of Homeland Security. I was born in New York, I'm a native New Yorker, I consider this my home.

DL: You've had an amazing array of jobs in both the private practice world at Paul, Weiss, where you were an associate and then a partner, but also in government. You were Secretary of Homeland Security, as noted earlier. You were General Counsel to the Defense Department, which is when I previously interviewed you. You were General Counsel to the Air Force. Those are all PAS positions [Presidential Appointments requiring Senate confirmation].

What would you say of your long career is the position that you found the most interesting or fulfilling or enjoyable? People would probably guess being a Cabinet member, but sometimes people with long and interesting careers have special affection for something they did early on?

JJ: That's exactly right. First, it's interesting to note that two of the four jobs I had in government service I did not see coming, I did not anticipate.

My favorite job of the four in public service was being an Assistant United States Attorney in 1989, 1990, 1991. When I was a young lawyer, an associate at Paul Weiss, my mentors here, Arthur Liman, had been an Assistant U.S. Attorney, he was at Paul Weiss, he left and returned, and I wanted to do the same thing. I was anxious to get into court. I was anxious to learn how to try cases. I was anxious for some autonomy and some independence, and I went downtown in 1989, hired by Rudy Giuliani…

DL: Hmm.

JJ: … and I loved the job. In three years, I tried 12 cases and argued 11 appeals before the Second Circuit. I learned the inside of a courtroom. I learned criminal law. I got to represent the government. I got to do good, so to speak, and had a lot of independence. I developed some wonderful relationships with people in law enforcement. One of my best friends today is a retired New York City police lieutenant who I met when I was an AUSA. He came to work for me at DHS years later. So that was my favorite job.

The most—I want to use the right word, I won't say consequential, but the most demanding job—I won't even use the word demanding. I would say that the job of being the senior legal official for the whole Department of Defense in the first Obama term, it was a very consequential moment to be in that job at that time. Seven years after the 9/11 attack, the Obama Administration had determined we wanted to reframe the legal thinking around going after Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. And so the job of general counsel of the Department of Defense (“DoD”) was certainly the most intellectually challenging job I had, and it was an important moment to be there.

We got [Osama] bin Laden on May 1st, 2011. We pushed through Congress the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. We did a lot of legal thinking about the detainees at Guantanamo, some of whom are still there, as you know. So it was in a very important time to be in that role, and very often I found myself at the focal point. Being a political appointee in the Pentagon, I found myself at the focal point between where the Obama Administration wanted to go in national security and where the military wanted to go in national security, and sometimes the two were somewhat different, and it was my job as the lawyer to kind of forge consensus, find consensus, and arrive at something that represented a strong, solid national security position that protected our interest and our security consistent with President Obama's agenda.

The job of Secretary of Homeland Security I did not see coming. I had left DoD in 2013 and the President eight months later asked me if I would be Secretary of Homeland Security. I was shocked, amazed, surprised. I didn't see it coming. That was a very big job. The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) has 22 components, 230,000 people, so there the job fundamentally was being a leader and a Cabinet officer. Some legal thinking very definitely went into it, but that job, you're on defense—the goalie, so to speak. One failure equals a thousand successes, and nobody notices the successes—they all notice the failures. So I was very much on the defensive team in that job. And yes, it was fun being a Cabinet officer. I can't say I enjoyed the job. It was demanding. It was the high point of my professional life. Not sure I'd ever want to do it.

DL: Well, actually, I wanted to ask you, your name was also floated for various roles in the Biden Administration. Did you seriously think about doing another term of duty in government under the current president?

JJ: I will tell you that President-elect Biden interviewed me for the job of Secretary of Defense during the transition. It was a Zoom interview—a virtual interview with the President-elect of the United States, it was a little weird. He was sitting at his home in Delaware and I was at my home in Montclair, New Jersey, in November of 2020.

He ultimately decided to pick Lloyd Austin, who happens to be a good friend of mine. And sometimes, if you understand what I mean by this, sometimes the stars are not aligned. It was just four years after we had left Washington, and I wasn't really ready to go back to Washington. I was just getting resettled into private life. I have a good life now.

So was I disappointed that I didn't get to be Secretary of Defense, which would've been the culmination of a public service career? Yeah, but for a couple of weeks. And maybe the job I had already was the culmination of a public service career, and I'm good with that. Sometimes you can overstay your welcome in Washington, in public life. So yeah, I was considered for that job, and you know, these things are so circumstantial that I didn't feel like it was a lost opportunity.

DL: This podcast is being sponsored by NexFirm. If you have wondered whether launching a law firm could be the best next step for your career, NexFirm has the experience and expertise to help. Contact NexFirm at 212-292-1000 or email careerdevelopment@nexfirm.com today to learn more.

It's interesting, your service as Secretary involved you addressing a number of issues, which I think persist to this day. Certainly there are issues about national security, there are issues about immigration, issues at the border.

Let me ask you two questions. The first is, what accomplishment from your time as Secretary are you most proud of? And then the second question I would ask, forgive the compound question, is what advice would you give the current Secretary of Homeland Security if you could right now?

JJ: Well, the job, first of all, is different than it was when I was in office seven, eight years ago. The current Secretary was my Deputy Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas. The job is different. The immigration problem is much bigger than it was. The number of apprehensions on our southern border my second year in office is the equivalent of what you'd get in six to eight weeks on the southern border now. The entire year, 2015, it's the equivalent of six to eight weeks now. So that issue is a much bigger problem.

The thing that I am probably most proud of is not one particular success like being involved in planning for the bin Laden operation or the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, not one big policy success, but I spent a lot of time on management reform, making the Department function better, and it's that the Senate gave me in the confirmation process was to improve the morale within that Department, which I did, finally, my last year of office.

I did all sorts of things to improve morale. I was determined to improve morale at DHS if it killed me. And according to the FEVS survey, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, we raised morale a whole three percentage points my last year in office, which is a significant movement for an agency of 22 components and 230,000 people that include the Border Patrol, TSA, FEMA, Secret Service. To move a big mountain like that was no small feat, and I did everything. I literally one day went to BWI Airport and played Undercover Boss and put on a TSA uniform and worked the line with TSA officers and went out on Twitter, and they all loved it. It was part of my effort to improve morale. I got on horseback with the Border Patrol in the southern border, I put on a customs uniform and went to the port of Baltimore, just to be with the employees and the workers and just be very visible.

Incidentally, for your audience, lawyering is not a skill that translates easily into leading. We lawyers, we like to master a problem, we have to learn everything about a problem as well as the client does. When you're the leader of a large organization, you have to learn to delegate and learn certain traits that don't come naturally to those of us trained as lawyers, like being visible, like the art of simple, straightforward communication, learning to repeat yourself 26 times over and over again.

You asked me what advice I'd have for DHS today. Sometimes you have to repeat yourself dozens of times before anybody will listen, before anybody will finally say, “You know what? The Secretary of DHS says that illegal migration on our southern border is a problem much smaller than it used to be, 20 years before.” And that was true when I was in office, and I repeated it over and over and over again, and finally even the conservative media began to run the story because they had to, because I kept repeating it. And so sometimes the essence of the job is repeating over and over again one simple, straightforward message that you want people to hear.

DL: So hopefully Secretary Mayorkas or one of his colleagues will hear this, but I'm guessing you probably communicate with him already….

Doubling back to your service as General Counsel for the Defense Department, which you mentioned was a very impactful role, your service there was very successful, and I think it's partly why you were confirmed by such a large margin, even in a very partisan age, to serve as Secretary of Homeland Security. But your decisions regarding targeted killings definitely generated a lot of controversy. Do you still adhere to your views on that issue? Has your thinking changed in any way since then?

JJ: I pretty much believe now what I believed then. Through evolutions in our technology, in our capabilities, we are able to reach an objective, a target, with minimal to no collateral damage—whereas generations before in warfare, if you wanted to take out a certain objective, you'd have to take out a whole city block, or a whole neighborhood, or a whole factory, or a whole plant.

Now through—you used the phrase targeted killing, I would say targeted lethal force—now because of the precision rate of our weapons, we're able to focus solely on the objective through drone strikes, missiles. Targeted lethal force is not limited to just unmanned drones, by the way. It could be a missile, it could be something dropped from a fighter jet. What makes people uneasy, in my view, in my observation, about drone strikes, is that no one is putting themselves in harm's way, like a Special Forces operation on the ground, like the bin Laden operation. The pilot can be half a world away. No one's putting themselves in harm's way in this type of warfare, and this is, I think, the real concern. It could be, in the wrong hands, a convenient substitute for law enforcement, to take out an objective, a terrorist, who's wanted in multiple jurisdictions, in a remote area where he can't be arrested or captured. In the wrong hands, that could become an expedient substitute for bringing someone to justice in a courtroom, and we have to be careful to not let that happen.

But do I adhere to the view that this type of counterterrorism is effective? Yes, absolutely. And I know for a fact that we made our homeland safer through this form of counterterrorism. When I was in office, we were dealing with an unconventional enemy that did not adhere to the laws of war, and my determination was that we apply traditional legal principles to an untraditional, unconventional type of combat, and that through that we'd have the most credibility and the most sustainability in terms of how we thought about this. And I continue to believe that today

DL: I think that's a very logical and persuasive defense. Are there any issues during your long career in public life where you've changed your mind since your time in office, whether it was as Secretary or as General Counsel to either of the departments?

JJ: Only with the benefit of hindsight. Hindsight is brilliant. I was in 2009, the first year of the Obama Administration, probably the principal proponent of the military commission system at Guantanamo. Let's reform the system, make it better, but let's not throw it out entirely. The JAG community in the military was very much supportive of that, and I listened to them. I was persuaded by them. They were very committed to the system, if we could improve it. Had you told me then, in 2009, that not a single one of these cases has gone to trial, I would've had a different view. But I could have known that only if I had a crystal ball.

There are many things that we decided, that I decided, that I supported, that of course with the benefit of hindsight, I might have thought differently of, but on the most difficult issues that I wrestled with, I remember very clearly what the circumstances were at the time, and to this day feel comfortable that given the circumstances at the time, given what we were wrestling with at the time, we came out the right way.

DL: It makes, again, perfect sense, and it’s very understandable.

I am interested in finding out from you, on behalf of listeners who are interested in the kind of career in public and government service that you've had, how important is it for lawyers, whether young or not-so-young lawyers, to get involved in politics?

You mentioned earlier that you were somewhat interested in politics as well as law. You were involved in the Obama and the Kerry campaigns. If somebody wants to have a PAS position in an administration, how important is it for them to be a bundler, to be a fundraiser? Some people are very uncomfortable with that type of political activity. They see it as maybe “icky” or something. But do people who want to serve at the highest levels of government perhaps need to get their hands dirty, so to speak, and get involved in electoral politics?

JJ: I wouldn't necessarily call it getting your hands dirty, David. I was very involved in the Obama campaign of 2007, 2008. Yes, did I raise money? Absolutely. Did I give money? Absolutely. But I also was a lawyer for the campaign. I was a delegate at the convention. I canvased door to door in West Philadelphia, in Northwest Des Moines, Iowa, in advance of the Iowa caucuses. I did all sorts of things, and it was an exciting thing to do for a very exciting, historic campaign.

Without a doubt, being involved in someone's campaign is a pretty safe ticket to being involved in that person's administration if they win. But there are plenty of people who populate the Biden Administration, for example, who were not involved in his campaign. There were plenty of people in the Obama Administration who were not involved in his campaign.

When young lawyers come to me and ask me the question you just asked, I say, very often you can get a start in public service by working on Capitol Hill, or on congressional staff for a committee or for an individual member. You can start off in a very junior position and work your way up, without seeming to have your eye on the next job above—just do the best job you can at the time, and just be persistent. Don't give up. I know plenty of associates at this law firm who are in public service today that I've helped get them there, who tried one thing, didn't get it, tried again, then got it. So be persistent.

And the other thing I'll say, David, is—and I suspect many in your audience are involved in private law practice—there's a whole other aspect of the legal profession, people who are career public servants. Let me tell you about one who retired last week, Paul Koffsky. Paul Koffsky for 28 years was the Deputy General Counsel of DoD for Personnel and Health Policy. It was an SES-level [Senior Executive Service position], which is like a super-bureaucrat, not political at all. I couldn't tell you what Paul Koffsky’s politics are. He has served as Deputy GC of the Defense Department through multiple administrations. I couldn't tell you how he votes, I couldn't tell you his politics, but he’s probably the nation's expert on the Vacancies Act, on military-personnel legal issues. He retired last week and from a career filled with remarkable and remarkably consequential achievements. He probably makes the same thing as a third-year associate in this law firm, and he leaves federal service with a remarkable career, lots of awards, medals, and plaques, and I'm sure would do it all over again if he had the chance.

DL: This actually goes to something we were talking about before we started recording. To any government lawyers out there listening, I would love to have some career government lawyers on the podcast too. Feel free to reach out to me.

Before we shift to my final questions, which I give to all my guests, I don't want to give short shrift to your time at Paul, Weiss. How would you describe your current practice, the types of clients you're dealing with, the types of issues you're confronting? How would you describe what you're currently doing?

JJ: Growing up at Paul, Weiss and through much of my career at Paul, Weiss, I was a trial lawyer, stemming from my days as an Assistant U.S. Attorney when I learned how to try cases, so I used to try lots of cases. Now, at this chapter, since 2017, when I returned, I’m more advice. Our client base has also changed. It's more high-tech now. So I spend a lot of time advising clients, many of whom are in the high-tech space, about government relations, cybersecurity, crisis management, crisis response. One of the interesting things about law practice at this level is that it tends to bleed into other things that are not strictly law, like consulting or communications or crisis management or cybersecurity.

And so that's what I do now, in addition to a lot of extracurricular things, which you might be interested in. I serve on the board of directors of two public companies. I serve on the board of trustees and the board of directors of several not-for-profits. I lend my public voice on TV once in a while, and speeches and podcasts and lectures. I make a point of being on MSNBC and Fox and a lot in between, so I reach a large audience with my points of view.

And then last but not least, I have a radio show, on WBGO 88.3 FM in Newark. It's a public radio station, and I've been a big supporter of the station for years and years. Finally, the station manager said, “How would you like to have your own radio show?” And I said, “Fine. What should we call it?” He said, “I don't care, as long as it ends with the words ‘With Jeh Johnson.’” So once a month on Saturday mornings, 8 to 10 a.m., you can hear All Things Soul with Jeh Johnson.

I play classic R&B ‘cause that's the music I love. I bring my own playlist, and I have one interview per show. My debut show, I interviewed former President Bill Clinton. He agreed to be on my show to talk about his love of the saxophone. Most recently, for MLK Day weekend, I interviewed Andrew Young, 91 years old, one of Dr. King's closest friends and allies in the civil rights movement. I've interviewed Afghanistan combat veterans, Henry Louis Gates, I have a lot of fun doing that. So particularly at this stage of a legal career, it's always good to have hobbies and extracurricular activities to keep it interesting.

DL: I could not agree more, and now that I'm your neighbor in northern New Jersey, I will be sure to tune in to your show on Saturday mornings.

My final four questions are standardized for all guests. And my first is, what do you like the least about the law? And this can either be the practice of law or it can be law as that abstract system that orders our affairs.

JJ: Diaries.

DL: In what sense?

JJ: Timesheets.

DL: Ah, yes, exactly!

My second question: what would you be if you were not a lawyer?

JJ: I would be a subway motorman.

DL: Huh? Oh, you're holding up a sign for the number seven line, which goes between Manhattan and Queens.

JJ: I love trains, trains are my hobby, another one of my hobbies. If I had to be somebody other than a lawyer—lawyer would be my first choice—I would be a subway motorman, or an engineer. Your listeners can't see it, but that's my train set.

DL: Oh wow. That's amazing. I actually thought it was real footage of [an actual] train. Wow. You keep that at your home or office?

JJ: My basement. Yes. So HO-scale trains are one of my hobbies. I'd love being a subway motorman, particularly on an elevated line like the number 7 train into Queens.

DL: Oh, interesting. I remember in our earlier interview, in addition to radio and trains and music, you mentioned gardening. Do you still garden?

JJ: I still garden, though not as much as I used to. I've had to turn it over to the professionals, although once or twice a year I do get out with my shovel and plant some rose bushes. But yes, that's another hobby.

DL: In light of all your hobbies and all your boards that you serve on and your busy law practice and your media interviews, my third question is, how much sleep do you get each night?

JJ: I haven't slept well since I was Secretary of Homeland Security. You talk to the current Secretary of Homeland Security and ask him, “Did I wake you?” “No, I never sleep.” So I haven't slept well for a long time. Hopefully that'll change.

DL: So four or five hours a night?

JJ: Oh, it varies. Four or five is… optimally seven, but that's optimal. Sometimes it's four or five, which means I'm in for a bad day. Optimally, seven.

DL: And my final question: any words of wisdom for listeners who look at your life and career and say, I want to be Secretary Johnson?

JJ: Well, you asked me what I like least about the law. One of the things I like most about the law is the opportunity to mentor younger lawyers and law students to encourage them and show them the virtue of having a career in both private law practice and public service.

Advice I'd give is a good mentor-mentee relationship requires that you have a good and committed mentor, and a good and committed mentee. Lots of people don't know how to be mentees. Sometimes it requires being persistent, knocking on the door of the mentor, making yourself visible. You don't disappear into the wind, and you bring to the mentor some very specific ideas of where you'd like to go, so that he or she can help you.

Everyone needs a mentor. I've had several mentors in my career, and to make that relationship work effectively requires work on both sides of the equation. That's the best I'd advice I could offer.

DL: That's excellent advice. I think many people are very focused on just finding a mentor, but then they don't put in the work necessarily once they have that mentor, and it is a two-way street. So I think those are very wise words.

So again, Secretary Johnson, thank you so much for joining me. I am so grateful for your time, your insight, and I know my listeners will view this as a real treat.

JJ: All right, David. My pleasure. Good to talk with you.

DL: Thank you to Secretary Johnson for joining me. It was an honor and a pleasure to speak with him, and I hope you enjoyed and drew inspiration from this interview, as I certainly did.

Thanks to NexFirm for sponsoring this Original Jurisdiction podcast. NexFirm has helped many attorneys to leave BigLaw and launch firms of their own. If you would like to explore this opportunity, contact NexFirm at 212-292-1000 or email careerdevelopment@nexfirm.com to learn more.

Thanks to Tommy Harron, my sound engineer here at Original Jurisdiction, and thanks to you, my listeners and readers, for tuning in. If you’d like to connect with me, you can email me at davidlat@substack.com, and you can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, at davidlat, and on Instagram at davidbenjaminlat.

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