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How to Stay Out of Your Lawyer’s Office


You’re very busy. Do you really want to spend some of your precious time meeting with agency lawyers to sort through an avoidable mess? I worked for almost 30 years as a lawyer for the Secret Service, including nearly three years as its chief counsel. Here, I offer five suggestions for how to spend less time with agency counsel.

Take email seriously. Because emails are quick, informal means of communication, they are nothing like sending a memo, right? Wrong. You can be held accountable for every word in every email you send or forward. You do not get a pass because the email was funny or you were busy or you just sent it to a friend.

Every email you send or forward on your work computer is subject to official review and you are subject to discipline for the inappropriate ones. Emails also are routinely used as evidence in administrative hearings and lawsuits. Plaintiff’s lawyers routinely request all emails potentially relevant to their client’s claims. Don’t hand them a victory with an ill-considered email that undercuts the agency’s official position.

In his book A Good Talk, author Daniel Menaker says that “an email is forever. And forever forwardable and discoverable and litigable and revengeable and so on.” Think of this before hitting send.

Take Equal Employment Opportunity law seriously. You know you can’t discriminate against protected classes. But as an executive, you have an additional responsibility. You enforce EEO policy and set the tone for your workplace. If a female employee is bothered by a Sports Illustrated swimsuit photo in the office, what do you do? More importantly, what do you do if no one says they’re bothered? You had better know, because you set the tone.

What if an employee files an EEO complaint against you, alleging that you committed vile, overt acts of discrimination you can easily prove to be untrue? As difficult as it may be, you must trust the EEO process and not take it personally. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, retaliation is the most common issue alleged by federal employees. And a finding of retaliation is possible even when you are cleared of the original complaint.

Take the bureaucracy seriously. You work for the federal government. There’s a rule or regulation for everything.  If you’re offered a gift, if you’re looking for a post-retirement job, or if you’re asked merely to provide an employment reference, you need to follow specific ethics rules. Contact your ethics officer. If you are approached by a company’s representative who wants to discuss a proposal to streamline one of your agency’s processes, did you know the Federal Acquisition Regulation has a subpart that governs the submission of unsolicited proposals? Contact your procurement division.

What if you have a problem employee in your office, one you just cannot reach, no matter how hard you’ve tried? What actions should you take and not take? Contact your human resources department. Don’t hesitate to seek guidance from the relevant expert. Particularly when facing a difficult personnel issue, you may benefit from receiving knowledgeable, objective advice.

Take the media seriously. Every federal agency has a constituency. Some may be more far reaching than others, but there is outside interest in what you are doing and how you are doing it. And mainstream and social media are aggressively anxious to publish details of policy proposals and employee mistakes.

Know your agency media policy, and be careful about the information you disclose. Be careful when you feel like boasting about your high-ranking position, your inside knowledge, your level of access.

You are responsible for your actions 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  If you are not comfortable with a particular action, if you would not want to read about it in the paper or online, it’s probably not a good idea.

Time and time again, when someone gets in trouble, alcohol is involved. Do you really need to be drinking another bourbon at that hot new bar that just opened?

Take your employees seriously. You have attained the executive ranks. Therefore, you will be scrutinized by your employees. An employee who feels disrespected may be more likely to focus on a misstep, however minor. An employee who feels disrespected may be less likely to share institutional memory that could influence a particular choice you have to make.

If possible, you want to avoid the hassle of responding to an administrative grievance or complaint, which is much more likely to be filed by a disrespected employee. And what if respected employees work harder for you? Not only do you avoid problems, you are ever closer to success. And perhaps ever closer to spending less time with your lawyers.         

Don Personette spent 30 years in government, including 18 years as deputy chief counsel and three years as chief counsel for the Secret Service.   


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