Professional Advice about International Legal Careers

International Law Society – The University of Arizona

Tim Keeler – Partner, Mayer Brown LLP


Mr. Keeler is a Partner at Mayer Brown, LLP in the Government and International Trade practice group.

Thanks for meeting with me Tim. To start things off, you spent three years at the USTR at Chief of Staff, and then in 2009 came on with Mayer Brown. Why the switch to the private practice and how was the process for you?

Well, as Chief of Staff I was a political appointee. We lost the election and I had to find a new job. That’s what happens. I had to leave the government. It’s very unusual that they ask you to stay, and even if they do it might not make sense.

Understood. So what can you tell me about the differences between public and private work?

There were more similarities than I expected going into a law firm from the government. The similarities were multitasking, managing lots of personalities and people… You know, government is the largest company there is. You have people above you, beneath you, and people side ways to you, so you really have to know how to manage people to achieve any goal you’re trying to meet. In a law firm it’s not as hierarchical. But still, you have people all around you that you’re dealing with – you have clients, people inside the firm. Those are the similarities.

The biggest change for me was that I had been in a job as Chief of Staff with the USTR where I did very few first drafts of papers. You know, I wrote sensitive personnel documents, but that was really it. The rest of the job was editing documents, deciphering and sorting information, and delegating. Being in a law firm, I have a variety of things that I do, but not infrequently those will include doing a first draft of a small, medium, or large project, filing, and doing research. In my last job there weren’t enough hours in the day to go as in depth as I might have liked to. So that’s sort of both a burden and a benefit of a law firm: you’re going to do deeper dives on particular issues that you’re working for with clients than you would ever have time for in the government.

So those are the biggest changes. I mean, I’m still mostly working on international trade and various filings and issues for clients, so it’s still working in the same field as I was in the USTR, largely, but from a different spot in the stadium so to speak.

Can you tell me what you do in your job on a day-to-day basis?

It’s called the government and global trade group, and I’m on the trade side. We do literally everything related to trade. That’s the best way to describe it. I have colleagues that do 337 claims, antidumping and countervailing duty work. We do WTO litigation – sometimes advising governments and frequently advising private parties about government litigation.

When you advise, what do companies expect you to do?

Well, private parties don’t have standing in the WTO. It’s only governments. But a government will only bring a case on behalf of a private party. Now the US represents itself. But the companies out there who either want the US to bring a case, or if the US brings a case and the company has an inherent interest in it, they’ll hire outside council to give them advice on litigation, on what to argue to USTR (or any branch of government that’s bringing the case), how it should be argued, and to work with the government on the various legal arguments.

So you are basically a liaison between companies and the government?

That’s right. You know, every company that’s impacted by the litigation may not see it the same way. You know, you have different arguments, etc., to use WTO law to make arguments that pending legislation is WTO inconsistent. We do trade policy more generally when it comes to anti-dumping, CVD’s, customs, litigation, regulatory, finding out how to save companies money on tariffs and other companies’ processes.  We advocate before congress on trade policy matters, we work on free trade agreement negotiations…

How do you do that?

That would be advocating to Congress to advocate to the USTR to say, you know, in this trade negotiation, advance this company’s interest to secure this benefit, or not giving up something over here.  I have colleagues that do export compliance. I do CFIUS filings, so that’s foreign investment in the United States and the federal government has a committee that reviews whether that foreign investment is a threat to national security, so that’s a formal regulatory filing. That’s interesting work because it’s, by definition, a legal issue but you also have to be looking at national security, political issues. I have colleagues that bring claims for investors under bilateral investment treaties and also represent governments who get sued under bilateral investment treaties. So that’s kind of the soup to nuts.

How big is the international practice in your firm?

Well, there are about 1,500 lawyers in the firm, or something like that. We have trade lawyers in Washington, Brussels, Beijing, Brazil – I think there’s about 25 lawyers total doing international law. And we have law firms in a number of places, but our practice extends to the entire world. Whether it’s India harassing a company in violation of a WTO obligation we’ll take that on. I have colleagues who do work in antidumping cases where Indonesian exporters to the US. I have colleagues that team up with Indian lawyers in India for antidumping claims there. We do work all over.

How much traveling do you do in your firm?

My travel demands are less here than what they were in the government. I do some traveling, but mostly I’m able to stay put. I generally get to Europe once or twice a year. I only got to China once in the last four years, which is less than I thought it would have been. But I do more domestic travel than I expected – principally to go see clients who are US based. In particular, on CFIUS filings, that almost never involves travel because everything happens in DC. So the clients come here for that.

I’d like to hear about your career path. Did you know that you wanted to go into the government and then into private practice when you got out of George Mason Law School?

Well I went to law school at night. That was when I was with the Treasury Department. So I worked at Treasury during the day and went to school at night. When I decided to go get a law degree, my boss at the time committed me to stay and we fashioned a new job that worked with school. It actually turned out to be a better job with more management responsibility.

Do you mind me asking why you decided to go to law school?

Well, my thought process at the time was, well first, I had spent a lot of time around the making of law. I mean, I was on the hill and wrote a few trade-specific laws, some of which I had to implement when I was in the executive branch and they came around to bite me, and I decided that I needed to get a graduate degree. I realized that if I was going to spend my time in Washington then a law degree is the currency of the town and folks with a law degree can do what folks with an MBA can do. But folks with an MBA can’t do what folks with a law degree can do. So there was a bit of versatility inherent in the law degree. Now, it would take more time to get the law degree than the MBA, but it just made sense. And really I made it on that kind of calculus.

I had done my undergrad in engineering and I didn’t like it. It made me think that I liked work more than school. But then I went to law school and really enjoyed it and it made me realize that I just didn’t like engineering. So there was an added benefit in that I ended up really liking law school.

How difficult was it to go to law school while holding a full-time job?

Well, I had a boss that was supportive, that was helpful. I had a girlfriend, then fiancé, then wife that was supportive. That was helpful too. And I kept it in perspective. You know, at the time the US had two wars going on. I wasn’t fighting in war. I had to work and go to law school at night. I had perspective on it.

What were your goals coming out of law school? What did you want to do?

I wasn’t sure actually. I was at Treasury in Legislative Affairs at the time helping run the office, doing nominations, handling intelligence issues. It was an interesting job and I really enjoyed it. I had just started thinking about what I wanted to do next. I mean I had a full time job, so it wasn’t like I was thinking about what to do next. I was just starting to think about that but hadn’t taken any action when the opportunity with the USTR came along. So, that was a job that, because it was a significant promotion, or an upward move, I really couldn’t say no. I knew I had to take the job even though I had presumed that I would be leaving government. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Why had you presumed you would be leaving the government?

You know my thought process wasn’t far enough developed that I thought I was going to go look to work in law firms or general lobbying shops. I guess there was an assumption that I was going to be leaving because I had been in government for five years, had two jobs while I was there, but I literally had not developed my thinking into what I was going to do. I was really busy at the time. My entire plan, or lack thereof, was all overtaken by the USTR opportunity.

Do you have any advice for law students entering the job market?

Well, working for the government is an invaluable experience. I say that because you can only know — really know — how an organization works if you’ve been on the inside. Um, that’s true for Congress, that’s true for the Executive Branch. So, you can also get that kind of experience, you know, by definition, when you’re working in the government, if you can get the job, you’ll get handed work and you can show your competence, and you’ll get handed work that you can really prove yourself with and build on. But they’re generally tough and grueling so you have to be at points in your life that you can really manage that.

So, let me take a step back and let me address what I think you’re getting at. I came into the private practice post-recession, so that’s the only type of work environment that I know. You know, it used to be thought that if you could get in the big law firm track that, even though the hours were awful, you would have secure employment. That clearly is not the case now. And it’s not just true of law firms; it’s true in most jobs. If you’re looking for a job with security then you’re making a mistake right off the back.

The upside about getting government experience is that if you do end up going to a law firm then you can enter from a horizontal track. You don’t necessarily take the associate track.

That’s what you did right?

That’s exactly what I did. I came in as “of Counsel.” Subsequently I was made Partner. So, if you get opportunities to work in government don’t pass them by because you want to get on the “secure” track of the law firm because really that’s not long-term security at all. The best long-term security is getting projects, proving yourself and developing skills – whatever the setting it is. Obviously, whatever you do, you want it to come out to be very successful.

And let me also say that for jobs for lawyers in the international trade world that, generally, the growing practices used to be antidumping and countervailing duty litigation. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. There are people who love that and there are people who hate that kind of work. The upside of it is that if you can get into that kind of work and you get that kind of litigation, you know, clients need those services. If you want to be a law firm you need to be doing things that clients want and need.

Um, 337 is a big growth area. That’s litigation and associate work for is out there, you know, you’re cutting your teeth by really having to grind it out. That’s a good experience and it has been a particular big growth area. If you’re ever able to get opportunities at the USTR or the Hill, they’re fantastic opportunities. You start to make contacts, people start to see your stuff, and those are institutions that are hard to break into. But one you break into them you are learning things you can only learn on the inside.

Interview taken September 4, 2013.

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This entry was posted on October 17, 2013 by .
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