Professional Advice about International Legal Careers

International Law Society – The University of Arizona

Ambassador John Veroneau – Partner, Covington & Burlington LLP


Ambassador Veroneau boasts an impressive track record in both government and private sectors where he has worked for the US Senate, Secretary of State, USTR, and international law firms.

Can you describe what you do?

I’m a partner here at the firm and co-chair the International Trade practice group. My practice area focuses on international trade law, WTO agreements, and FTA’s. Some of my work involves investor disputes. Most trade agreements have provisions in them that allow private investors who have their property expropriated to bring a claim against the expropriating country. This month I filed a NAFTA claim against Canada on behalf of our client Eli Lilly for expropriations stemming from two patent invalidations that occurred in recent years. Otherwise, I do a lot of trade policy and trade advisory work.

What is a day in your life like here at the firm?

It varies. A typical day here in Washington, as opposed to being on the road, starts at home reading the newspaper – doing international work it’s important to keep up with the news.   I get home delivery of the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Financial Times. So I start the day by seeing what’s happening around the world. Nowadays, obviously, you can also check Google news and see if anything broke since the newspapers were printed. So when I get to the office, usually it’s checking emails, two or three meetings a day (client or internal).

You know, probably the major difference between being in house counsel and working at a firm is that you don’t have a lot of meetings you have to do, while working for a corporation there’s a lot of coordination about that. Clients typically don’t pay you to go to meetings or sit in on meetings because it’s so expensive and there’s not a lot of value added. So the good part of that is typically what you’re doing for clients is high-value work. It’s interesting. It’s certainly not make work – they wouldn’t have you do that.

The day is punctuated between meetings and phone calls and writing, of course. Some days I’ll only spend an hour or so writing. Other days I’ll spend six hours in my office working on a document. And then because of my role as co-chair, part of my day invariably involves talking to other people at the firm about budgets, whether to undertake a particular pitch to a client, advice about how to approach that pitch, business trips.

Probably the last thing to note is that, with the culture at Covington, every client is a firm client. So, if one of my colleagues calls and says, “Hey, I’ve got this client and there’s a question about such and such issues,” that is a high priority. We make sure we support each other for the benefit of the client as opposed to just being in our silos just working on our book of business.

You had quite an amazing career path in both the public and private sectors. Can you tell me a little about the path you took to get where you are today?

Some people at a young age have a very clear notion of what want to do and how they aim to do it. I just wasn’t one of those people, quite frankly. I was interested in a lot of different things. I had an interest in international issues stemming from a gap year I took in college between my sophomore and junior years when I spent a year in Cambodia working in refugee camps. So that wetted my appetite for international issues, ideas, and work. But I didn’t have a clear sense of how my career would unfold.

I even went to law school without the clear sense that I wanted to practice law. I had always had a strong interest in law and history and public policy generally. I thought about a public policy or history degree, but I ultimately decided that a law degree would give me an opportunity to pursue my intellectual interest in those topics and actually be marketable when I got out of school. So I went to law school and I actually liked it. I gravitated towards courses that had a broader jurisprudential or historical element to them – whether it was constitutional law, international law, jurisprudence, or rule of law courses generally.

I really enjoyed law school, but even at the end of it I still didn’t have a clear sense of where I wanted to go. I was married, and am still married, to someone I met in Washington, D.C. before law school.  We agreed that we would start our lives down here (D.C.) mostly because I lost the arm wrestling match. I was urging for us to be in Maine. But she had worked on Capitol Hill and it seemed like an interesting place to be. Since I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go I thought, “Well, I’ll spend two years on Capitol Hill and it will be an interesting time and I’ll learn a lot. Maybe things will clarify with what I want to do.”

I took a job with Senator Bill Cohen from Maine for what I thought would be a year or two and then go off and be a “real lawyer.” I found it to be a very interesting place. I was a Legislative Associate at first. And then after a couple of years he mixed it up and I became his Legislative Counsel. And then, two years later, the Legislative Director left and Senator Cohen asked me to fill that post. I ended up being with him for six years.  It was a terrific time. It gave me time to do interesting things, and I learned a lot.

Then he announced he was leaving the Senate and I made plans to leave as well to become a real lawyer, as I had thought I would. But then Bill Frist, who was then a relatively new Senator for Tennessee, asked me if I’d be his Leg Director. All of a sudden I found myself having to walk away from all my Shermanesque statements that I was going to leave the Hill and go do something else. I found him to be a really compelling person and a very decent person so I moved over to work with him.

I was with him not too long before President Clinton asked Senator Cohen to be the Secretary of Defense. I thought, “You know, I probably won’t know too many Secretary of Defenses as well as I know this one.” So I begged leave from Senator Frist, who was gracious, and I went to join Secretary Cohen at the Pentagon. I was the Assistant Secretary of Legislative Affairs– the chief liaison between the Pentagon and Congress. It was an interesting intersection to be at and I learned a lot about security policy. Most of my international work to that point had been on the economic side.

At the end of the Clinton Administration, as a Republican, I thought that if the opportunity presented itself I would like to work in the Bush Administration. Low and behold, I was introduced to Bob Zoellick, the incoming US Trade Representative, and he asked me if I’d be his congressional person. That was a good lesson for me. I went from the Pentagon, the largest cabinet agency in the Executive Branch, a Senate confirmed position, I probably had 30 people working for me, to USTR, not a Senate confirmed position, where I would be leading a team of two. It would be generous to say that it was a lateral movement. But it was a lesson to me that you have to be willing to roll the dice. It was a really good move because it led to, after two years, a very big break in my career when I was asked to be the General Counsel of the USTR. It allowed me to convert my policy work after law school into legal work and lead a team of 30 lawyers at USTR. It was a growing experience and allowed me to hone some lawyering skills and to differentiate myself from someone who was just strong on policy. That was probably the most important break in my legal career. Like I said, it was a roll of the dice when I left the Pentagon, but, you know, sometimes the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.

After a few years the General Counsel’s office I went to DLA Piper with no plans to return to government. But after about a year the opportunity came up to go back to USTR and become Deputy USTR. Initially I thought, “I’ve made my break from government. It’s time to focus on a private sector career.” But the more I thought about it the more I realized those positions don’t come very often. So I took it. I was the Deputy for about two and a half years, traveled to over 40 countries, and had probably the coolest job I ever had in government.

At the end of that, there was only one law firm I was interested in, and that was Covington. Fortunately, they made me an offer.

And none of that was really planned.

What do you recommend to law students who are taking that first step into their first job?

You have to focus on the job at hand and do the best job you possibly can. Some people have real clear sense of what they want, and my advice applies to them as well. You’ll see that opportunities will present themselves if you get a reputation of doing a good job. Some things will be out of your control. I had no control over whether President Clinton would ask Senator Cohen to be the Secretary of Defense. But, because I had done a good job for Senator Cohen, he wanted me with him at the Pentagon. There are so many things you don’t have control over. But, you do have control over the quality of work that you do. That will, in itself, create opportunities.

Interview taken October 3, 2013.

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This entry was posted on October 22, 2013 by .
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